September 9, 1923
Now I must tell you of a plan which we have made, the Eldest and I, and which my husband approves of. All we have left, from the sale of the boat and so on, cannot last us long with the size of our family and the growing cost of life, but at present it may still just cover the purchase of one hectare of land and a cottage such as the peasants here live in — two or three rooms and a kitchen which is also dining and sitting room, an outhouse or two, a well, a strip of land, and a clump of old trees if possible. By working one hectare very intensively, a peasant here lives quite decently and rears his family. The one condition is to have no hired labor except for the ploughing once a year.
I think I have told you that for twelve years we lived both summer and winter in our country home. The older boys were country-bred, and this kind of thing is familiar to us all. The call of the soil is instinctive and very strong. The Eldest is best fitted for work when living in sea air, and is free from headaches and all the other consequences of his wound received in the war. He says he prefers being a laborer at home to being a well-paid chauffeur in livery — or without it, either — in another man’s service. He and I can manage one hectare, and in the holidays we should have the assistance of the other boys of assorted sizes. As for myself, I quite realize how hard such work will be, but I am not sure that teaching in Lille as I was, tramping day by day in all weathers from house to house for the lessons, living in cheap town lodgings, was not more tiring. I can go to town, now and then, to church and to see the youngsters at school, and make myself small holidays. Having a healthy country home of our own, however small, near the sea, for them to spend their summers in, is a most serious advantage. Altogether, the plan seems wise as well as attractive, and we are waiting for my husband to see what can be done and take the final decision. Whether he works in Paris and runs down to see us, or settles down with us and turns into a peasant too, will depend on circumstances.
I quite understand that for me, personally, this is something of a break, almost a betrayal. It is a change from the state of a refugee, which is being only a rolling stone, to that of a settler or emigrant. But for the young ones I believe it is the best and most stabilizing thing to do. When the day of deliverance comes these roots will not hold them, but in the meantime it is best to have roots somewhere.
We have actually bought our hectare of land near the bay, where we mean to breed ducks: a strip of grazing land beyond the dike, a mile or more distant from the village. It is fenced in, but devoid of buildings of any description, and as we cannot afford to build a house, we have bought two small baraquements de guerre — the army barracks that are being sold so cheaply all over France. These must have been built at the outset of the war, and are not in good repair, but they were the last which remained for sale at Étaples. They are to be brought over here in sections on a motor truck and set up on foundations which we are to prepare. It is too late in the season for stone and cement foundations to go in, so they will stand on wooden supports for the present. By next winter they will probably be quite comfortable, when we have coated them with cement and filled in the interstices between the supports with stone; in the meanwhile, we are quite ready for temporary discomfort cramped up here, for the time will be full of interest and excitement!
Hired labor is the one thing to be avoided here as much as possible, it is so expensive; but fortunately we have plenty of this commodity in the family. The Eldest and my nephew, with the help of the younger boys next summer, must get through the work unaided and make most of the furniture. With time and patience we shall be comfortable, I trust. We are busy and happy, and mean to move into our shanty as soon as it is possible, for now the boys lose so much time going back and forth.
No — never lend us any books! The boys are too intimately in contact with Mother Earth just now to keep them clean. And don’t buy books for us; but any old English book destined to be thrown away would be a pleasure to four greedy boys.
I must confess that I am doing my housework with extraordinary inefficiency, though with unabated good will. I never have learned to cook decently, and the boys succeed far better than I do at it, but they care less about keeping things tidy than I do. Coal dust, kerosene oil, grease, and muddy boots are my perpetual unconquered enemies. I am afraid I do a lot of grumbling and scolding, but a sense of humor always comes to our rescue. Still, I wonder sometimes, as I scrub, about the speckless beeswaxed floors of our dream farm; clogs will certainly have to be worn about the place and left at the door, like the row of slippers in front of a mosque — do you remember that familiar sight?
The boys drove one hundred and twenty tarred stakes into the ground — old railway sleepers sawed in two — by way of a temporary foundation. Then the weather broke, and sheets of rain came down unceasingly and flooded the road leading to our meadow. The motor truck could get no nearer than two miles or more from the foundation, and all the material was left in a field at the spot where the highway ended. A cart and two strong horses were hired to move the stuff to its destination. It took a week to get through that job, as the horses could do no more than two or three trips a day, and during that week the rain never stopped. The boys would load the cart with great heavy sections of wall, flooring, or ceilings, which loomed gigantic through the rain and fog, and then the cart would start ploughing its way through the mud, sinking axle-deep into loose sticky clay, horses straining, men and boys shoving and supporting the top-heavy contrivance, and making very slow progress. Dim, who is not old and strong enough to be of much use, accompanied the rest, and sank nearly to his waist in the holes! Then the cart had to be unloaded and the horses rested. When I went out to watch proceedings, the driver told me it was a job for eight strong men. It strained our men’s strength and endurance to the breaking point. They came home after dark dogtired, drenched to the bone, and hardly able to eat their suppers. I felt rather anxious during that week, but in due time it was over, and I was taken out to see Our House standing upright on its black stakes, like a giant centipede.
It was not raining that afternoon, but the meadow looked bare and desolate; a gale was blowing from the sea, bending the scraggy trees and bushes, disporting itself through the barrack, and tearing off strips of tarred paper and playing with them. It had been a black barrack at best; now the paper or cardboard which had covered its outer walls came off in patches, giving the impression of some sort of skin disease. There were gaps and chinks and crevices in every wall, the roof leaked, and the rain had run through cracked ceilings and floors. The wind got under the floor and tried to raise it bodily. One corner seemed inclined to gape open. The north wall threatened to cave in, and it was a hard job to prop it up and make it solid. It looked, on the whole, like the dilapidated booth of a wandering circus. The two carpenters from Étaples had not even tried to join the sections of wall properly, and remarked that these buildings never stood being moved. I dare say they had done their best, but we were glad to be rid of them.
It seems evident that a poultry farm is the best thing we can think of. The Eldest has visited the best-known élevage industrialisé, got in touch with specialists, and is reading furiously and learning all he can on the subject, and drawing up careful estimates of what can be done. Books and pencil and paper seem to prove conclusively that a well-regulated poultry farm is very profitable, and that this part of France is propitious for breeding ducks. The two conditions to success are artificial hatching and the complete absence of hired labor. My nephew will throw in his lot with ours, which will make two men and two boys to do the work, with me to keep house. It seems feasible.
When the first three hundred ducklings are hatched out we shall have no warm enough shelter for them, I fear, and yet we cannot put off their appearance and their sale! We were all thankful when the sun came out at last, and some clear, frosty weather is promised.
The boys have papered one large room with old newspapers to keep out the wind, and have set up an iron stove in it, four large incubators, and their own beds! Also some packing cases by way of tables. There is a watering trough at the farther end of the meadow, holding some muddy water and a number of frogs — still, it is water. The Eldest and my nephew, with one hundred hens and sixty ducks, are hoping to settle down there next week. I cannot risk it with the youngsters yet; our future dwelling still has so many cracks in floors, ceilings, and walls that it is like a sieve and needs a lot of time and work still to be really habitable. It settled on its stakes and all its joints gape open a bit. I shall wait till April before I move in, as for a time it will mean camping out amid many ducklings and few comforts. The Eldest asked me if I would mind having half the ducklings put into my room for a week or two if things grew critical. I gasped and firmly refused, so the question remains open. I never bargained for this: one hundred and fifty ducklings and myself in one room! The boys’ room will hold the incubators and some of the babies, but not all, and I am afraid the parlor will have to be given up to them, since their welfare is all-important, and the kitchen not secluded enough for their safety.
Here I am, in Paris. The boys asked me to give them a little more time to get the place ready, so, after tidying up the house we have used as winter quarters, I decided to come here.
The house is neither finished nor furnished, but there seems little chance of accomplishing this until some of the ducklings have been reared, fattened, and sold to Paris restaurants, so we are in a state of suspended animation for a couple of months.
John is here now, and it is a great joy having him with me so much. He drops in whenever he can after University hours and talks psychology at me. He is very successful in his work and experiments at the Institute and his professors think highly of him. He is living in a garret and often gives up a meal to buy a book. It is the life of a very poor student, only made possible at all by his having gotten a scholarship and being able to give up the not very successful Morocco experiment. As for me, I am very content to have him nearer; one of the hardest things that refugees have to bear is enforced separation, and the impossibility of getting to each other in case of disaster.
The more I hear of Paris, the more thankful I am to think that we did purchase that hectare of land and our baraquements, for the money they cost would not take very long to spend here; while now every cabbage we plant, every egg our hens lay, is so much toward our upkeep. And to be allowed to live by working the soil seems to me a great blessing. There is something fair and square about it. We may not live well, but if a hectare will provide for a large French family, there is no reason why it should not do so for us, and give our children muscle and strength and clean surroundings into the bargain — well, the clean kind of dirt, I mean! I still find it pretty hard to get used to, when my sons come in to dinner straight from their work, and I sometimes wonder who they are or where I am.
Le Crotoy — no street, no address, no postman! One of the boys walks in to town for our letters, which they keep for us at the post office. We are called La Pâture Russe; everyone knows us.
I am actually at home — chez nous! It was on the fourteenth of April that I returned from Paris, quite ready to share the boys’ life in a barn. But when the boys took me into the house, I could not believe my eyes. My room had been partitioned off and papered, the ceiling mended and painted white, a new double floor made of fresh white planks, also two new windows, an improvised cupboard, a writing table, and a real washstand with a drawer, purchased at a sale. The contrast to the rest of the house made this one room look wonderfully bright and fresh and cozy. I realized all the pains that had been taken with it, and the amount of work it had meant. Many other things had been accomplished, such as making a well, laying drains, and so on, which I heard about later; but in the midst of chaos is a clean, tidy room which looks like a room, and the whole family often look in to feast their eyes upon it. Chairs, a real jug and basin on the stand, hooks and a deep shelf behind the curtained-off cupboard — all their pocket money went and they cut down on their food to manage it! I had to dig out ail my possessions: bits of material, pictures, photographs, my mother’s inkstand and old silver candlesticks, and to please the boys I take particular care of this room of mine, and they come there to rest, taking off their heavy boots and clogs at the door.
They served an excellent supper on a real table covered with a new white oilcloth. Then we sat far into the night, exchanging impressions, making plans.
My room was flooded by moonlight when I went to bed that night. A slight breeze from the sea came in at the open window; it was wonderfully peaceful. I can remember no happier experience in exile than this home-coming. It was perfect, and I love to recall it.
Next day I started planting potatoes with the help of Dim. In some ways Dim is an ill-used chap. Andrick works too hard for his age and lifts weights too heavy for him, but Dim is the odd boy at present. It is just because he has not the strength to share in all his brothers’ work that he is made to run all the messages, fetch all the supplies, do all the little things that others have no time or liking for. Weeding is his particular bugbear, and building his ambition!
The nights are still so cold that the room destined to be our kitchen has to be given up to the ducklings just hatched by our incubators, which occupy a large space later to be partitioned off into bedrooms for the boys. At present they sleep with the incubators, which need watching day and night, for we could not afford the self-regulating American machines which save so much work and turn the eggs automatically. In the future kitchen, on a floor of cardboard and fine sand, penned in by boards, dozens and dozens of fluffy balls which pretend to be ducklings and chickens disport themselves round a special stove called une eleveuse. A shaggy dog is at the door. Twenty-seven very fine Rouennais ducks waddle about the large enclosure outside and wake me at sunrise, insisting on food and freedom. A dozen hens lay very few eggs, and hide them in the grass instead of in the seemly places prepared for them, so we have to search the whole place and tread carefully. Behind what will some day be the house, ploughed land — one half hectare of it — stretches out into a distance that makes my heart sink as I do my best with it while the boys build.
Fields and pastures on three sides of us, the sea on the fourth, with a dike between us and the beach — no great beauty, but wide, wind-swept spaces which I like. We often work by the hour silently at different ends of our bit of land, and the width and peace sink in; every daisy near the ditch and every lark in the sky is a joy and a godsend; subconsciously we all feel it. Frankly, I am often tired, and my back aches so much from digging and planting that I wonder how to hold on; but inside, all is well, and manual work of this kind does not interfere with thought and feeling, though it does very distinctly with writing and reading. It is terribly tiring to the body, before one is in training, but wonderfully restful to the soul.
Sandro arrived on a visit, looking very starched, spruce, and cleanshaven, the city air still clinging round him, and disappointed us by not admiring our farm! He developed chicken pox, and as the bed where he was obliged to remain while his temperature was high was in close proximity to the incubator, which was hatching just then, he took a dislike to ducklings in general. Then my nephew and both younger boys sickened with the same disease; they had it violently and felt ill and neglected. The Eldest and I, left short-handed at a critical time, are said to have been most heartless and unsympathetic; beyond dumping down food and drink on a packing case in the sick room, we did nothing to relieve the sufferers.
Early in May
Our ducklings are certainly thriving. They are taken out for an airing daily, and wander into the tall grass, and have to be watched, searched for, and counted; now they have learned to get out of their enclosure and raid the dining room, where we are cooking our meals at present, and follow us about like dogs. I killed one by rising too quickly from my knees after feeding them. I had not noticed a little fellow perched on my sleeve; he tumbled off, and died the same night. It is wonderful that we do not squash dozens of them as we move.
Every duckling who looks poorly is the object of special care and attention. We read up the diagnosis of every ailment a duckling can be subject to, and it usually recovers before we arrive at any conclusion. But ducklings are not clean — they do not exactly smell of lavender. We long for the weather to be warm enough to move them into their own outhouse, but this ought not to be done before the second half of May. One fine warm day we took them over to the watering trough to give them their first swimming lesson, as prescribed in the book. They did n’t enjoy it, scrambled out of the water as fast as they could, had convulsions, turned over on their backs, and lay stiff and stark, to all appearances dead. Think of it — the whole lot of our first batch of ducklings! We laid them out in the sun, we wrapped them in flannel and warmed them in the kitchen near the fire, we fussed endlessly over them, till one of them stirred, sneezed, hiccoughed, and sat up. All but one recovered in due time. I don’t know what went wrong. Was the water too cold or had the temperature of their room been too high? We shall not repeat the experience until they are full-grown.
The boys have started on the foundations. Great quantities of sand and gravel and broken shells have to be brought from the bay and mixed with cement; barbed wire is stretched along to strengthen the building, and steel clamps screwed into the corner posts. One wheelbarrow collapsed under the weight of sand, but a handcart contrived by the boys is too heavy to move when filled. So tons of sand full of picturesque tiny shells have to be hauled across the dike, a boy-load at a time, and this is what they are building the outer walls with, or rather putting a very thick coating on the wooden framework and plank walls, as fast as the foundations underneath have hardened. They work without scaffoldings, since wood is so scarce and precious; two ladders with a board between and a rope are all they have. The duck dwellings must be treated the same way, so that we can face the winter in a camp of stone and cement.
Just now the farm is full of laughter, high spirits, and young voices. My five sons are all with us: Nikola, John, Sandro, Andrick, and Dim; also my nephew; and for six weeks his two young sisters have joined us. The men and boys wear coarse dark blue overalls and the girls print dresses; all are sunburned, active, happy, and doing their best. Their appetites are excellent, and pints of milk and great hunches of bread disappear in a twinkling. Their capacity for enjoyment is boundless as well, and work is now accompanied by songs and laughter. Some of my housework is being taken over in a very well-meaning and rather amateur fashion by the young people. My nieces take care of the kitchen, but as they are very young and apt to forget things, I have a little more than usual to do sometimes, especially after all the youngsters have been to the casino in town for a dance, — when their day has not been too hard and tiring, — and come home by moonlight at two or three in the morning.
The farm is a playground now, and I am a spectator. I need not amuse them, I need only stand aside for them to amuse themselves, and I see that boys and girls can amuse themselves very thoroughly without flirting, and set off on foot for a dance, carrying their slippers in a parcel, with the same enjoyment and zest as girls used to feel over real balls when I was young.
My family maintains that the thing I enjoy in our present conditions is that no one bothers me about matters of dress. When I see the trouble my boys take over ironing a collar or the trousers of a Sunday suit, I wonder if this is a good thing or not. It certainly seems a pity to feel uncomfortable over a shabby suit, but it is natural when one is young, as is their wish of bettering their conditions and working back to a more congenial way of living. At my age it is different, and these things lose their significance.
Lots of beans and peas in our garden, lots of hungry young people to devour them with gusto, and I am too weak to refuse and take the things to market instead, as I ought to if I had ever learned to count centimes. I must add that I enjoy eating vegetables too, instead of getting two or three francs a day for them. But it is all wrong: beans and peas and cauliflower should go to market, leaving us the onions and potatoes. We eat our new-laid eggs, we eat our nice fresh vegetables, we devour what the farm produces, and I am delighted that the boys are no longer underfed, as they have been in a degree for years. It makes our life much cheaper, but it is not the way to make money for the future.
My only serious trouble is the thought of the younger boys’ education. We are too tired at night to teach and they to learn, so the idea of teaching them ourselves has come to nothing, and the youngsters have lost a year’s schooling. I still believe that they have gained some very useful knowledge in that year, but to let them forget all they know and turn into farmhands for good, at their age, is an idea I cannot resign myself to. So we are hoping, when the summer holiday is over, to get them into schools for Russian boys such as the one near Vichy, an American school with French tuition, a Russian priest and teachers of Russian literature and history, very low prices — and very few vacancies! Dim is growing robust and contented, quite ready to become a little peasant, but Andrick longs passionately to complete his secondary education at least, and takes the present situation rather tragically to heart, though he works exceptionally well.
There was a time when I felt that culture and leisure to read and think were slipping away and I was turning into a mere drudge and beast of burden. Now that I am actually helping to work the land, I find it physically tiring but very wonderful, in that it leaves the soul and mind so free. Your back is bent, your hands occupied, but your whole being is absorbing the sunshine and dew and all the peace around you, blends with the big, simple, real things, and draws stability from them.
Our great problem now is to cheapen the ducks’ food, since their appetites cannot be reduced. Excellent food for them is a kind of clam or mussel to be had for nothing at low tide about a mile or two from here. So far, we buy them; but when the building of the farm is completed and time less precious, the boys can fetch them. We shall have our own grain for the old ducks and straw for their beds, but we must build a storehouse for grain and potatoes and build a small ducks’ hospital at some distance from the other birds.
Up to six weeks, ducklings have a fenced-in exercise ground, smooth and sandy. Afterward they are moved over into grassy plots on the other side of the house, with low shelters for bad weather and a small level sandy place in front for feeding. So they have a clover pasture to disport themselves and catch worms and insects in. The fetching of mountains of sand in barrows to keep all this clean and tidy takes time; in our future plan is a swimming bath to be dug out, and the water kept fresh by pumping it into the ditch. Now this is all very well; but when the ducks’ toilet arrangements and comfort are assured, I must have a refuge of my own from ducks, dirt, mud, buckets of feed to be mixed, pails of water to be drawn, perpetual backache and all unpleasantness. I want a hot bath daily; pictures, books, flowers, clean hands, a comfortable armchair, a fireplace out of reach of the kitchen smells, white table linen — all the things I professed to care nothing for, the fleshpots of Egypt! Well, I do not always hanker after them, and I never show the boys I do. But it does me good to tell you and let you see me as I am.
The recent heat wave is over; thunderstorms gather daily, only to pass over our heads and burst elsewhere. The garden is getting very dry; two new wells dug by the boys — deep holes which we call wells — provide some of our vegetable beds with water; the rest, with the potato field, will have to be abandoned to their fate. But my enemies the weeds are as sturdy and prickly as ever; no drought affects them. I have never been able to weed or do any sort of work in gloves; consequently my hands are in a disgraceful condition — Tolstoy himself would approve of them.
What incalculable harm that great man did to our young generation, and how terrible was his expiation. He had fervently sought after truth, and was blindly followed even when he strayed farthest from the Church. His disciples believed far more firmly than he ever did in the new creed he professed. As he felt the approach of death, he understood — too late. His last days have always struck me as a great tragedy — this torment of repentance coming too late.
I don’t think his last works could have done as much harm abroad as they did at home. My husband was saying not long ago that the young generation makes him think of men who fancy they see a glimmer of light ahead in an underground passage. In order to see this light more distinctly, they hasten to extinguish the torches which lighted their way, and so remain — temporarily, at least — in utter darkness.
But it is only when there is no yearning for light, when men grow indifferent and callous, that the spiritual life seems suspended and things look hopeless. Have YOU ever noticed that it all begins with denying Evil as an active principle? ‘Evil is but the lack of goodness, as cold is a lack of heat or darkness a lack of light; there is no evil principle to fear, only a void not as yet filled in.’ Words like these I have heard from men who have done away with Hell and Satan, and hold what they call a broad, enlightened faith. ‘When I have taught men to believe that I do not exist, I shall be their master’ is the sense of a sentence Satan is supposed to say to Ivan Karamazov in Dostoievsky’s wonderful book. The older I grow the better I understand and appreciate Dostoievsky’s genius. Many of his words turned out to be prophecies, and none understood the Russian psychology as he did or believed so firmly in the destiny of the Russian people. After all her sins and iniquity, Russia will sit at Christ’s feet, he writes. If I had his books I should translate many passages for you which I cannot remember by heart. To me he is infinitely deeper and greater than Tolstoy.
It is easy for indifferent people to be broad. I feel that I have become narrower since the Church has come to mean so much to me. This should not be so, but it is. A saint is certain to be broad, but the seeker seems to narrow as he goes deeper.
An unbeliever told me once that he was skeptical about the Christian faith mostly on account of the behavior of Christian men and women. ‘If it were all true,’ he said, ‘if you actually believed it to be true, it would be the only thing on earth that mattered at all, and you Christians could not possibly be what you are. You would all radiate it, and would not care for worldly things, or money, or bear ill will to one another.’ He could not admit that sincere faith can go with infinite weakness. I wondered whether Mohammedans or Jews live their faith more than we do.
The few things that really matter in our lives are so hard to word that when we find a book in which they are even partially expressed we naturally treasure those pages. But we not only find it hard to voice these things — we often have no time or leisure to sense them. In the hurry and bustle we lose even our receptivity.
Do you know, at the age of forty-five I looked into myself to discover an absolute void there. I could see the impressions left by those I have loved and trusted, impressions which I used to take for my own thoughts; they were like the traces of writing on a blotting pad. But of my own there was nothing. I realized then that photographs and plans of the most glorious edifice could not replace the roughest and simplest structure built with one’s own hands — that a crisis had come which must be faced squarely. The only thing left was to start all over, to make and shape and bake bricks, one by one, with which to build a shelter. This happened to me in the very first of our exile. Well — I have tried; all the sorrows and experiences which have come to me can be used as tools. I am a very poor hand at it, but what I build now is at least genuine. Very few things are needful, but they must be real, for the real things are solid; they will not bend to convenience or compromise or convention; they will not be gainsaid or circumvented.
As for the house, the boys hope to have it ready soon to turn over to me for the final coats of paint on doors and window frames. We shall whitewash the messy things as our Podolian peasants do. When our young birds are sold and only one hundred and fifty ducks left, we shall all be able to rest for a bit. And I can say quite frankly to you how tired I sometimes get of ducks and ducklings, their smell, their appetites, their illnesses and sudden deaths, their absurd accidents — like drowning in two inches of water in the drinking trough! We are paying a heavy price for our inexperience, and for the exceptionally stormy summer weather we are now having.
Things are going so badly here that they can only change for the better. Cold nights, hurricanes, hourly downpours, hailstorms, the whole place flooded — yard and meadow and the birds’ summer dwellings and shelters. We cannot take seven hundred ducklings into the house, and they die by dozens during every storm — all but those in full feather. I consulted a vet, and ‘ Plus il y en a, plus ils crevent ’ was his only comfort. So we repair all the damages caused by every storm, bury our ducklings, and try to make the best of it, and plan for high and dry floors and well-drained buildings with hot-water pipes for heat, which we hope to have ready for next year, and new ditches to drain our flooded domain; but for the present we are helpless and can only splash about in the puddles and hope for a change of weather. Ducks in full feather seem to enjoy the rain, and the sale of five hundred will cover our winter needs; so my boys work on, in drenched overalls, and suffer from rheumatism, as do all the local inhabitants more or less.
The barrack has turned into a decent gray stone house, which only needs a better roof and some ivy to look quite respectable, but now all the outbuildings and duck quarters must be treated in the same way. And worst of all, a hundred ducks I took so much trouble to rear must now be killed and plucked and sent to Paris. Of course this is a consummation devoutly to be wished, though I had hoped to send them off alive in baskets, with some barley for the journey; but restaurants want plucked fowls. I shall go for a long walk during the slaughter, and the boys hate the prospect as much as I do.
I shall not speak of ducks this evening — the first batch for sale has been sent to Paris this week, and the fittest who have survived will help us face the coming winter. In a couple of months, when most of the boys leave us, we shall settle down quietly, shut up some rooms, and try to keep the rest warm. We can arrange a workshop where all the things we are short of can be made: a new incubator, shelves and shutters, and what not; mats, too, from the rushes that grow in our ditch. My head is full of plans, and if materials of every kind were less expensive I really believe we could fix up this house with our own hands to be a credit to anyone. As it is, old packing cases have had to be turned into furniture, except for our little iron beds, of course, which were bought at a sale; and though we are very proud of the result, I am not sure anyone but ourselves would admire it.
Since last I wrote we have had a deluge, our barrack on its high foundations serving as an Ark. All the rest was flooded —the roads leading to us disappeared under water and mud, potatoes rotted underground, most of the barley was spoiled and could not be even cut. From our doorstep we sank into a veritable bog, ankle-deep and more. Most of this year’s work is lost, and worst of all, the storeroom and ‘barn’ and the homes of the ducks were flooded, the result being that all our young birds died except a hundred or so. We lacked the courage to save them by cramming all our bedrooms full of them, and our efforts in bringing quantities of sand, making temporary floors, and putting up extra stoves to warm and dry them, failed. The torrents of rain continued and the water rose steadily, and our kitchen was filled with shipwrecked ducks.
The whole house could not have held half of them, but of course some could have been saved in our bedrooms at the sacrifice of our bourgeois instincts and prejudices. You really cannot make a room clean after ducks have lived in it; scrub as you will, the smell clings to every board. The birds did not actually drown or freeze, but caught chills in the general state of dampness and misery, and died off rapidly. Now that the rains have stopped, all the survivors look so wretched that I am not sure how many of them will recover.
Our first year has ended disastrously, and the boys have to face that disheartening fact after long, tiring days, drenched hour by hour, working in a bog, fighting the elements. Of course the choice of this shore and this particular low-lying patch of land was the primary mistake. But last summer, when we first saw it, the weather was so fine and dry here that we never suspected what the climate could be like, nor that our farm behind that substantial dike could be flooded. It probably was a mistake, too, to start with so small a capital, but under the circumstances this could not be helped. We had to buy cheap incubators which proved almost worthless, when we should have had a first-class one in a room properly built and kept at an even temperature. Our own eggs should be used for hatching, not eggs which have been subjected to transport. These things one learns from experience; in fact, this has been a year of experiences. We had several hundred birds where we hoped to have several thousand.
This year’s disaster must be faced and accepted. There is no doubt that it cripples us far more than our neighbors, who have also suffered from the weather, but who have reserves for such emergencies. Most of them raise cattle, and a flooded pasture is not such a calamity as a flooded poultry farm. A good thing for the boys is that they must keep on working. Even if we have to sell the farm, it must first be brought into proper condition, the buildings completed, and the harm done by the water repaired. Of course we are very blue, but we cannot stop to think how we feel; we must keep on! John and Sandro will be glad enough, I dare say, to settle down to their studies in a small room in the Quartier latin this winter, but until the schools open they have much to do here.
Should we fail completely and have to scatter in search of work, I should still feel that the time spent here will not have been wholly wasted; it has done more for the boys than they know, were it only the clean, salt-wind-blown life and the fact of having a home. To see my boys almost their old selves again is enough to make me grateful for this life, failure and all. They have certainly not made a fortune yet, but they have taken care of me and worked to the best of their ability, which means more.
My own difficulties are of a very different order: not to lose one’s temper or let little things ruffle one; never to say ‘I told you so!’ when one has happened to turn out a true prophet; never to croak, but always to meet them with a smile even when the kitchen stove will not burn and the coal is wet and the roof leaks down one’s neck — when it comes to keeping it up in practice, well, my dear, I am nowhere! I growl and fuss and snap, and then repent at leisure. It all comes back to the same old question of keeping one’s own inner chambers clean. The trouble is that you can never get straight for good by one effort or sacrifice; before you know where you are, the same battle has to be fought all over again. And here we have not even the spiritual support of living near a church.
I am afraid my last letter was a bit dejected. A week’s bright sunshine has made me feel more cheerful upon all subjects, and after all, we each have our little immediate tasks and must not worry about what we cannot mend. I was laid up for a bit with a bad cough, which gave me an enforced rest and time to think, and there are many things sadder, I realize, than the premature death of ducks, perhaps even harder than the physical needs and troubles of refugees.
Speaking of material things, I wonder why so many of us Russians fail. Is it inefficiency only, or are we not destined to succeed in exile? One of your American correspondents says in a recent magazine article that Russian refugees all over the world are broken people and can be of no further account in the question of Russia’s future. Well, I believe — and it is a great comfort to me — that Russia’s future does not depend on the welfare or survival of a few hundred thousands of us. It is for us exiles that I fear the consequences of losing touch with our country. We certainly have not the solidarity and endurance of the Jews, and we are scattering more and more, instead of forming into colonies with a church and a national school in each. Church is now our one link with home, for there too, in the people’s hearts and consciences, nothing else is left standing. All through their sins and downfall, their suffering and expiation, the people at home have still clung to their Church, and this many of us still have in common with them. Religious persecution and compromises like the ‘Living Church’ have failed, and the civil authorities must recognize the strength of this factor in the people—passive, but deep-rooted and lasting.
Even when things are most difficult here and we are prone to grumble at being chained to this patch of land, we realize that it has proved a blessing and that we may pull through. By pulling through I do not mean being well off, but reaching the point where the farm is able to feed, warm, and clothe us to a certain degree, besides giving us shelter. Of course we are too many here, and of course we ought all to live in one room, round one stove and one lamp, instead of enjoying a little privacy and lighting our fires when it freezes — we have a little fire for an hour or two in the evenings in our little iron stoves, and hot water too. The trouble is that we are only sham peasants after all, and cannot yet form the habit of going to bed with the chickens as real ones do. Luckily, after a spell of cold weather we always have a few mild days to thaw in, and they save coal and comfort us.
By all of which you will see that I have got safely through my autumn attack of the blues!
The kitchen should be the living room by rights, if we are to pattern ourselves on the local custom, but ours is put to so many uses! Favorite birds and sick birds live there, linen is washed and dried, ducks plucked before packing, ducks’ food prepared. It is so full of miscellaneous objects, all particularly necessary at the moment, that I have given up my dream of a kitchen-sitting-room, cheerful, cozy, and neat.
January 7, 1925
Christmas! A real one this year, too. I have had such a splendid time with my youngsters during their holidays! A Christmas tree, in a box full of earth so as to plant it the very next day in the Refuge; lots of oranges and sweets, roast duck and salad of our own raising, coal to keep the house warm, and above all, the delight of being all together again. Now they are back at school, and I have time to take up my pen and tell you about it.
Of course, lucre is never very plentiful with us, and various necessary trips to Paris with all their attendant expenses had made us wonder how the boys were to come home for Christmas. Then an unexpected bit came in, and we decided to have a very good time! A warm blanket for each, and strong boots and warm socks, one excellent cigar for the Eldest, and a dictionary for me, and even another book or two for us all to share.
Then my husband came down from Paris after a very long absence, so as to make it a real reunion, and on his way to the station to meet his father the Eldest looked in at the post office and found your parcel. He brought it home with his father’s valise and our supper in a complete jumble. We had quite a festival: an oukha (a Russian soup made of fish with bits of potato in it), a beefsteak, fried potatoes, cabbage, dried figs, and coffee. Then we cleared the table, lit cigarettes, put on coal, as the weather is cold, and, gathering round the lamp, opened your parcel. I wish you could have seen us at it. Never since my childhood have I enjoyed unwrapping a surprise so much. The green papers and Christmas cards all looked so wonderfully cozy. The customs officials had kept the box for a long time, but did it no harm in the end.
After examining the contents of the little parcels we came to the cross-word puzzle book, and the Eldest and his cousin settled down to the first puzzle, while I said I would leave this occupation to them till I got through my last translation. But I heard them discussing words and letters, and was led to offer a suggestion which happened to be a fortunate one. Then we all went completely mad, and got to bed at impossible hours of the night, and enjoyed ourselves quite absurdly. And now I really must keep those books under lock and key till all the day’s work is properly finished, or there will be nothing done on this farm. It is a virulent catching disease, a form of mania, I believe, and we have all caught it! My husband took it a fortnight ago when ill in Paris, over some puzzles in one of the English papers he reads, so he was the most experienced member of our mad family. Is it a passing madness or a lasting one? Very fascinating, at any rate. The children’s book we got through quickly and I shall keep it for the younger boys to do over again. The other will give us plenty of occupation for a long time to come, and it is wonderful practice for our English. My feeble vocabulary ought to revive quickly by its aid.
During the twenty-four hours when we were all here together we called a family council and sat down with a pencil and paper to figure things out. Our bit of land is evidently swamped by rains periodically, and for this reason people more experienced than we were would not buy this farm for raising poultry; neither ducklings nor chickens can flourish in the damp, and the only really dry place in all seasons is the house, because the floors are half a metre above ground. The walls want another hot summer like our first to dry them through and through, but it is still dry enough for young birds. Now the youngsters have a large room which they use only in the holidays; so we have made up our minds to the very thing I considered unendurable, and ducklings and chicks under six weeks old are to be given this room to be born and reared in, right in the midst of the house, with a door made through the outer wall to enable them to go out on fine sunny days. The boys are to live elsewhere together as best they may.
It will be an incentive to keep the bird infants as clean as they possibly can be kept, but the fact remains that they will squeak and smell all over the house! I have stopped protesting, because it is unreasonable to risk another disastrous year, and now that we must begin over again very modestly, we really should do anything that will better conditions. It is a question of three or four months’ incubation and early rearing, and it is easier to keep an eye on the beastly birds indoors. If we fail with them again, we must turn the whole hectare into a kitchen garden.
There is an element of cheer in the fact that the worst of the winter will be over by the middle of this month; this latitude and longitude differ rather markedly from Russia! Already we have longer light, rather better weather, and will soon be preparing the garden for spring.
I shall draw the house for you some day when it is warmer. Very little remains to remind one of the three boarded shanties, barracks, or sheds — I hardly know what to call them — which we originally bought.
I have been rather tired and hustled and hurried by my work during the past year. When all the boys except the Eldest and my nephew left us. I felt lonely and lost. So few human beings and birds left, so little housework, and so many stormy days when outdoor work was impossible. The whole place seemed to go to sleep, and grew silent and strange all of a sudden. The boys took over drawing water from the well and fetching the milk. After tidying up and sweeping in the morning — the whole house is not a vast job — I was left to face a pile of mending in my own room, and felt stale, flat, and unprofitable. Missing the youngsters was probably at the bottom of it, for every free moment of mine had formerly belonged to them. And let me tell you that I am not a successful peasant woman, I wear sabots and a big blue apron, but have to strain my strength to the utmost to accomplish what a real working woman of my age does with very little effort or outlay of energy on all the farms about us here. I have improved, but a day’s digging still gives me a backache and makes me feel asthmatic and inefficient. So, though leisure and rest upset me, — ’l’homme est un animal d’ habitude,' — I shall let the boys work while I merely fuss about for a time.
For I suddenly understood that the time for recuperating has come and that I stand in need of it. So I have settled down to a new and rather lazy life: get up later, stop work at a certain hour, and give myself time to read and think. Work will begin soon enough, but just now I can afford to slacken the physical strain and lay in stores. So it seems as if I could finally turn my attention to something which I promised to do for you — write down a sort of history of my memories, drawing as it were a series of pictures for you of our old life.
I realize that the old life in Russia can never come back, and that our children growing up in exile can never know what I have known at first hand. There has been a complete break, the end of the old life; and yet there was so much in the old Russia which I cannot hear to think lost forever. A former culture is being buried now, but it must, after a period of time, be excavated again if the history of our country is to be complete. Just as the World War was the end and the beginning of an epoch, so the revolution and overturning of a whole system in Russia will soon live only in the memories of us older ones, and especially because so much of Russia has been unknown and misunderstood by the rest of the world. There has been in our intensely national life something cut off, hidden from even our nearest European neighbors. And then I should like those who have become friends since this new phase of my life began to know and understand a little of what makes the background of every new picture, every new experience, for me.
So you can picture me quiet and lazy as to my hands, but with my mind often very far from here. My equipment is a deal chair, a cold room, a dark evening, a small lamp, and a pair of spectacles!