THE NEW ATLANTIC SERIAL
BY NINA FEDOROVA
AUTHOR OF THE $10,000 PRIZE NOVEL, THE FAMILY
BY NINA FEDOROVA
THE AUTHOR: Nina Fedorova, the Atlantic Prize novelist, was born in South Russia. Her parents were of the intelligentsia, and after the Revolution she and her family became part of the exile movement which flowed across Siberia into Manchuria and thence to China. They were driven out of Harbin by the Japanese, moved on to Tientsin, where again the Invasion engulfed them. In 1938 she and her husband and her two sons crossed the Pacific to make a fresh start as American citizens in the university town of Eugene, Oregon. There she wrote her first novel, The Family, which in 1940 was awarded the Atlantic Prize of $10,000.
THE NOVEL: Tientsin is the setting of this new novel. The Children; the year is 1938; and the characters are Russian exiles, parents and young people living on the ragged edge of poverty with only the strands of family affection to hold them together. As the book opens, Lida, a young girl with a lovely voice, is making ready for her first concert. Her voice has been trained (without fee) by Madame Manuilova, a faded but once famous opera singer; if the girl does well in this amateur performance at Tientsin, her teacher has promised to take her on to Harbin, perhaps even to Shanghai, for professional engagements.
Lida and her mother share an attic together. To it come members of the Russian colony, for comfort, tea, and talk. Mother supports them on her slender earnings as a nurse, but her duties at the hospital prevent her attending Lida’s debut. The girl is taken to the concert by their landlord, Count Diaz, a Spanish refugee, whose distinction and encouragement (they go in a taxi!) give the girl confidence. At the hall they are joined by Leon, the Count’s son, and he, with the rest of the audience, is swept off his feet by the fresh and appealing beauty of Lida’s singing.
Lida is walking on air, for now the trip to Harbin is assured. But she is brought down to earth when, to her embarrassment, Leon proposes to her. Caught up as she is by the ecstasy of her music and the remembrance of her American lover, Jimmy, the girl turns him down in innocent cruelty.
BY NINA FEDOROVA
LIDA’S DEPARTURE for Harbin had been decided upon, and this caused talk in the small circle of Tientsin where Lida was known. Her recent success at the concert was much commented upon and her ‘brilliant future’ was thenceforth taken for granted. People began ‘to drop in’ to the attic, interested and benevolent.
Mme. Klimova was one of the first to come. While she shrank from intruding upon anybody’s grief, she always came first when any shadow of fortune was cast upon one’s abode. She came ‘to share,’ of course.
In spite of the fact that Mme. Klimova was going through a very colorful phase of her life, she did not feel particularly happy. Yes, she had married the old man and had every right to be referred to as ‘Madame la Générate’ Shabalov, but nobody was in haste to give her that title. No. Instead they began to call the General ‘ Mme. Klimova’s husband.’ The poor General was never known under his proper name. He had been a ‘lizard on relief’ at school, a ‘thistle’ in the barracks, an ‘old horse’ to his first wife, ‘the General with Maps’ during his beatific years as a widower, and was now promoted to the doubtful honor of being ‘Mme. Klimova’s husband.’ Why the public is jocose at the expense of some people, leaving in peace the others, nobody knows. The fact that General Shabalov readily answered any nickname showed his fatalistic attitude toward public opinion.
‘At last, at last, Lida,’ said Mme. Klimova, when, breathing hard after climbing the stairs, she appeared in the attic room, ‘. . . at last ... no more nonsense about your funny American bridegroom ... a good career, instead of groundless hopes . . . How do you do, people?’ she said, seeing there were three persons in the room.
As always, Mme. Klimova’s visit was ill-timed. An interesting conversation between the Countess, Mother, and Lida was interrupted and could not be begun again in the newcomer’s presence.
But Mme. Klimova was talking herself: —
‘When and where are you going?’
‘I am to spend Christmas in Harbin, and sometime in spring I go to Shanghai ...'
‘I do not know. Mme. Manuilova says I must spend about four years in a school.’
‘I do not know. Somewhere to prepare for opera.’
‘But which country?’
‘I do not know yet.’
‘Well, Lida, your plans are no more sound and certain than could be expected.’
Actually Lida’s future had been discussed before Mme. Klimova’s arrival. The Diaz family planned to return soon to Spain. The Countess loved Mother and Lida and considered the possibilities of help and support. But not a hint of all this was given now to the visitor. Once more Mme. Klimova’s sallies to affectionate friendship were doomed to failure.
She rose to leave.
Meanwhile the old General had been downstairs with the Count.
The thing which astonished Madame la Générale about her husband was the ease of his intercourse with people. He entered any house as if it were his own and was always met accordingly, as one of the family. He never had excuses, or apologies, or compliments to pay to those around him, but just would sit down, take his maps, and start a war monologue. People around were free to listen or to ignore. He was a great connoisseur of wars. Wars fascinated him. Wars and destruction were, for him, the main sign of our modern times, as a renaissance of arts or Protestantism in religion happened to be in other epochs. He was a strategist by education. But wars were not only his ex-profession, no, they were his major subject of interest, his art, his vocation, his hobby.
He approached them in the style of a Russian mind — as a problem in abstraction, conceived in elemental purity and worked in vacuum, without another thought of their being alive and clothed in flesh of human bodies. Such an approach is that of an artist, a sculptor who hews the marble, and breaks it, and hammers it, and carves, and incises — never thinking what it is to the marble.
This day when the General opened his maps, the Count quietly moved his chair nearer and they both sat bent low over the table with the maps on it — the General orating in ecstasy, the Count giving out only quiet monosyllables in Spanish.
Thus the ladies coming downstairs had found them.
‘Are you not tired of my husband?’ Mme. Klimova cried, and the fact that the Count, always perfectly courteous, did not answer astonished her.
‘What are you looking at?’ she cried again and in small steps ran toward the table. ‘Europe? But there is no war in Europe?’
‘Europe?’ Mother repeated in apprehension and went to the table too.
‘Europe?’ the Countess said and looked toward the table.
‘Ladies!’ The General rose and held the map in his hands. ‘Ladies — yes! — it is Europe. Look at her! She is a beauty. She is a gracious country. Look, for she will change soon.’
‘How . . . how will it affect England?’ Mother asked in a small voice.
‘We shall not live long enough to see the whole of it . . . ‘ he began.
But Mme. Klimova interrupted him.
‘Away with prophecies! You are now a married man. I do not know,’ she went on, ‘why all the good prophets and philosophers were either single or quarreled with their wives. Why? What do you think, dear Count?’
The ‘dear’ Count was sorry, that problem never presented itself to him in that special aspect. And again he was attentively listening to the General.
Mme. Klimova, feeling excluded, yet bound to enjoy every single moment of visiting a Count, went to the chair and, pushing Dog aside, sat herself heavily.
But it is precisely when visiting a Count that one does not push, even animals. Dog stood up and looked steadily into Mme. Klimova’s salmoncolored face, his nose moving into a surf of infinitesimal wrinkles. She misunderstood his attitude and, taking it for an expression of affectionate devotion, she tried to pat his neck with her plump hand.
This was far more than Dog could stand. That woman never knew what the scent of her water-lily face powder did to his olfactory nerves. He rolled his eyes and growled.
‘In some houses even dogs have a mania of grandeur,’ Mme. Klimova muttered and hastily withdrew her hand.
The talk and preparations for her trip to Harbin kept Lida in a state of growing excitement. After her lessons she went shopping with Mine. Manuilova, who bought her clothes. Lida accepted presents simply, as if it were quite natural for some to give, others to take.
On the eve of her departure Lida made several calls. One of them was on Mme. Klimova, whom she found in high spirits.
‘Now go!’ Mme. Klimova cried. ‘Sing, charm every man on your path, choose the best one and marry him. Do not forget to invite me to your wedding ball.’
‘But I am engaged . . .’ Lida began.
‘You are still full of that nonsense?’ Mme. Klimova asked with indignation. ‘Lida, never have I expected that from a girl of your class. That love story with a boy who is remembered only because he is absent . . . Who just simply does not do anything: neither a proposal, nor an engagement, nor any kind of arrangement. Who never gave you a ring, never writes letters . . . One must be a lunatic to call this a love story. Meanwhile a real, flesh-and-blood Spanish Count lives in the same house . . . young, handsome . . . no, I simply cannot ... I meet too much of lunacy on my way. But they say lunatics have their lucid intervals influenced by changes of the moon . . . Pray, Lida, on one of those days only look at Leon. . . .’
‘But,’ Lida said naïvely, ‘I see him quite clearly. I like him. And he proposed to me, but I refused.’
‘What? . . . You what? . . .’
‘I refused. I said I loved Jimmy.’
Mme. Klimova stared at Lida’s face with a sharp hawk’s glance: no, the girl was not lying.
‘One word to you, Lida. Only one word more. You are a real communist, you are a born anarchist . . . you are one of those who destroy hierarchy and traditions ... to refuse a Count . . . no, I cannot . . . my heart is too weak, I must not talk about that. But if I were your mother, I would throw you on your knees to repent and deplore your behavior and pray for forgiveness before God. Why blame communism or naziism or Jews when our children are the real cause of our ruin? They do not want to carry on tradition. You ... in one stroke you could reëstablish the glory of your family . . . and you? Oh, Lida, you fully deserve your fate ... I wish you would marry that Jimmy.’
Mme. Manuilova announced that they would have a traveling companion — Mr. Rind, an American — who planned to visit Soviet Russia, and who was going to Harbin for his visa.
Mr. Rind was a traveler. At least he classified himself as such in answer to the questions in hotel registers. Mr. Rind was hardly ever asked personal questions. He belonged to that type of people who, being extremely curious themselves, yet manage not to arouse much interest in their own persons. In Mr. Rind’s case, he was questioned in Tientsin only at the respective consulates where he went for visas, and by the dentist who examined his molars. The total information thus compiled showed that Mr. Rind was a traveler, of medium height, of moderate weight, and with passably good teeth. Of course, Mr. Rind was more than that, but Tientsin accepted his existence as a status quo.
If he said he was a traveler, perhaps he was one. Why not believe so simple a statement? Credulity saves time. Thus Mr. Rind was a traveler.
The principal types of travelers fall into two quantitatively equal groups: those who come to teach and those who come to learn. But Mr. Rind — pronouncedly — did not belong to either of these groups.
Under nationality, Mr. Rind wrote ‘American,’ meaning he came from the United States. But he could be of any nationality as well, for there was in him no peculiar trait which would suggest his being this or that. He had no salient point on which to hook somebody’s idle curiosity, nothing too characteristic or strange. One meets such gentlemen. They are usually gray, rather than blond or dark. Well-shaven. They wear decent clothes, which, if not altogether new, are well pressed, and absolutely clean shirts. They do several good deeds per day, although always on a rather smallish scale: candies to children, cigarettes to soldiers, ten cents to beggars, polite words to old ladies, but they give nothing to newspapermen.
All this being external, one had no clue to Mr. Rind’s inner self, which he kept hidden with rather unusual care.
The three days’ trip to Harbin was a fascinating experience to Lida. Mme. Manuilova and she traveled second class, Mr. Rind in first class.
Lida looked different now. Only her overcoat was old; all the rest of her attire was new, elegant, and becoming. One could instantly see she was tall, slender; she moved with grace; her eyes were a beautiful mixture of gray and blue; her hair, gold and silver; her complexion, although pale, had the pink foundation of health. It was the tenderness of her youth that made Lida look fragile. Mrs. Brown’s beautiful jade brooch and Jimmy’s watch on Lida’s wrist added the final touches and made her look what she was not — a rich and carefree girl.
She was in a state of glorious excitement. The melancholic grandeur of the Chinese landscape slowly unrolled past the train windows. The hills, the plains, the humble villages under a brooding colorless sky, lit by the cool wintry sun, had for her the vague magic of a prelude, of the first page of a book unread, of a story untold.
Mr. Rind spent most of his time with his new companions. They had meals together and Lida’s enjoyment of things astonished him.
‘To begin a day with a cup of coffee!’ And she would look into her cup with admiring eyes.
‘Oranges?’ she would say. ‘At breakfast? Let us save them for dessert after dinner.’
When Mr. Rind said that oranges were not meant as a dessert but as food, for they had vitamin C . . . ‘Oh, it is a joke,’ she would answer. ‘I do not believe it, they are too expensive to be eaten as regular food.’
Oranges and the like were a ‘luxury’ for her, and her enjoyment of them was touching to see. She saved the candies Mr. Rind gave her and then confessed:—
‘These I shall keep for Mother.’
‘Does your mother like them?’
‘I do not know. I have never seen her eating candies. We never buy them.’
Meanwhile they crossed Manchuria, the country recently subjugated by Japan. The ‘Rising Sun’ flag waved greetings (or was it a threat?) from the roof of every official building. That ‘ sun’ seemed too bright for the occasion, too suggestive of the blood poured out so recently on that very soil, under that very flag. There was something inquiet in the air, and the sound of a funeral flute was the only voice rising from the landscape. It was always the same flute — day and night — the same melody, the same desolation, as if it were not played by somebody, but rose by itself, the breath of the mourning earth.
Poverty, dejection, decrepitude — in everything: in the low huts of the villages, in the shabbiness of clothes, in the ill-health and degeneration of human flesh. They made the eyes sore and the heart heavy.
The passengers were not those of the past times. In addition to their general appearance of poverty, fear, and anxiety, they had a look of hopelessness in their eyes. The Chinese scarcely spoke at all. The Japanese kept smiling and bowing low to those who belonged to the ruling military classes. The Russians were restless and noisy, but the appearance of one Japanese officer would make them silent. The whites had not yet worked out a submissive attitude toward their yellow rulers, and the appearance of one of them was felt afresh as an almost unbelievable humiliation. And the Japanese — always unpleasantly self-conscious among alien people — were not sure of themselves, as if expecting a sudden blow from behind.
Among the many ways of making people die on a large scale, economic pressure is, perhaps, the best. If not the quickest, it remains the surest. Decently worded as a sonorous slogan, it can be no less effective, while so much less expensive, than a war. Manchuria was given both — war and economic pressure — under the sympathizing but reconciled eyes of the rest of the world. The white Russians in Manchuria were doomed to that inglorious end. The Russians of Manchuria, who had built Harbin fortyfive years ago, were now invited to clear the stage and to do it quickly. Restrictions on all possible jobs and professions soon narrowed their means of earning to almost nothing. ‘To be or not to be’ became a daily question, a guess answered this way or that way only in the evening, when the day was gone and one found oneself still alive.
Not long ago these Russians were useful and active citizens of their native country; now they had turned into everybody’s nuisance abroad. As the nonconformists to the communist régime, they had either to die or to run away. They chose the second and sometimes regretted the choice, for no country is eager to welcome refugees.
Only a few Russian refugees were lucky enough to find jobs in their previous professions. The bigger part of them had to depend purely on their capacity for invention and adaptation. Those who succeeded were lucky too. The rest depended on nothing, except charity. These instantly started the process of dying out or of moral degeneration.
But the chief distress of the Russian refugees in Manchuria was the complicated political situation. Soviet Russia was their persecutor; Japan, their trap; China, an indifferent witness. The lives of many depended on the current relations between Soviets and Japan, the refugees being plotted against between those two and paying with their lives for the successes and failures of both sides.
Yet Harbin remained a vigorous town — with churches, with schools, hospitals, theatres, music, libraries — all kept by Russians.
Lida’s train came to Harbin early in the morning. It was cold. The sky was of the same tender, celestial blue as it was on that ‘second day,’ coming out of the hands of its Creator. Small, puffy clouds resembled balls of cotton carelessly dropped from somewhere above. Here and there on the ground lay patches of the snow, disintegrating, under the sun rays, into glistening crystals.
The bustle and noise were Oriental. But dominating all the turmoil of the railway station, voices of the people, hoots and whistles and honks, were heard the solemn and majestic sounds of the heavy church bells. A heavy chorus of copper voices. Then suddenly, at intervals, the merry and hurried peal of smaller silver church bells would rush in, trying to overrun each other in gay, breath-taking haste, as if they had been told exciting news and could not help crying it to mankind at the top of their silvery voices. But the big copper bells would not stand the interruption for long. They paused, took in air, and then drowned the rest of the world in waves of deep-basso humming sounds.
It was a Sunday.
In 1938 Harbin was poor, subjugated, but struggling. It was noisy, quarreling, optimistic, artistic — in short, human. At the top of commerce still stood two or three families who had had no cash for the last ten years. There were always musicians and artists struggling for a ticket abroad and — in a little while — being heard on the radio from the capitals of the world. There were inventors, swindlers, men of science, men of wickedness, the local genius, the town fool, the local prophet, the town poet, the lady kleptomaniac, the best liar, the saintliest saint, the blackest sinner — all gradations of human virtue and vice. Storytelling, diary keeping, memoirs writing, annals composing, archives preserving — all were going full swing at Harbin.
Mr. Rind went to the best hotel where he took two rooms. Mme. Manuilova went to the same hotel, but took the cheapest room. Lida went to stay with the Platovs.
‘Come here, everyone! Look! Only look! She is a beauty!' Thus Lida was introduced to the Platovs.
Glafira, the eldest daughter, met her at the station and they went on foot to the small wooden house in Mo-dia-gow, where the poorer Russians of Harbin were usually to be found.
With Vladimir in Shanghai, there were only five young Platovs at home. They all rushed forward to greet Lida, and Mme. Platova emerged from the kitchen, with a benign smile, in a halo of vapors and smells.
Looking at them one would hardly think they were one family, so different were they in appearance, character, and bearing. Glafira was full of life, and courage, and laughter. Galina was silent and timid. Mushka — eight years old — was a puffy and pale little girl, with eyes always astonished, always ready to feel offended and to weep a little. The boys looked different too: Grisha — goldenhaired and freckled — a smiling optimist, busy and helpful; Kostik—with the curly disheveled head of a dreamer, always diligently and silently busy, having in him an obstinate urge to build, typical of an inventor. The trait they had in common was a peculiar intensity of life, though differently centered in each separate case.
Never afterward could Lida remember in detail how the house looked, for instantly she became busy, absorbed by the Platovs’ life. Of course, the house was poor, but filled with the stream of young life and eagerness it seemed as cosy, cheerful, and even poetical, as a nest, for which appearances do not matter.
A‘corner’ was prepared and waiting for Lida. A narrow bed, an icon at its head, a postcard showing mild spring flowers pinned on the wall, a chair — and the Platovs were proud to show Lida ‘her place.’
The climax of the Platov day was when Father came home. Once a rich fur dealer, he now filled the humble position of manager of a store selling cheap furs. His work was hard, badly paid, and dangerous for his health. Furs brought from Mongolia were sometimes infected with anthrax, and that illness usually proved fatal. Thus the closing hour of an exhausting workday was always a blessed moment for Mr. Platov.
Stooped, clad in a shabby coat, smelling of hides and furs, he would trot home. And once across his own threshold, he became the important, adored, and admired head of a family.
His arrival was always waited for, and a ritual of welcome established.
His pet, Glafira, helped him to wash and change. A small closet was arranged for that purpose. As there was no running water in the house, she would bring him a big jar of pleasantly warm water, soap, a towel, a clean shirt, his robe. She would stand behind the curtain, on her guard, in case Father should need something else. Meanwhile she would tell him about the happenings in the house during his absence, for things always keep happening in big families.
Galina would noiselessly move chairs to the dining table, and the boys would bring dishes. Mushka, with Father’s slippers, would approach the closet and push them under the curtain.
He would come out another man: fresher, younger, but with an air of grave dignity, which he rarely had outside of his home.
The supper menu was always a secret, but there were never unsuccessful or untasty meals at the Platov table. Everything always succeeded in that kitchen. If there was no sugar or not enough butter, there was always Mme. Platova’s gift of invention and make-believe. The other Platovs did the rest, for all of them were always hungry.
Mme. Platova would approach the table grandly, with a steaming pot in her hands, and say solemnly: —
‘A soup. With potatoes and carrots.’
And the soup would eagerly steam forth its smell of potatoes and carrots. It would like to smell of meat, and cream, but it cannot. Still it was always enjoyed, for however different the Platovs were in appearance, they had one common trait — they possessed the gift of appreciation of what they had.
Soup is one of the greatest human inventions. Hot, steaming, on wintry days it saves much of human health. It is a symbol of domesticity, honesty, stability, dignity, and integrity. Spoiled people never eat soup. They like fancy things. Rich people do not like soups, they have more refined things to eat. Lazy women never make soups, for it takes care and attention. Ambitious cooks would not waste time on a soup, for it is not ornamental. Good, honest mothers are always on the soup’s side.
Consider its varieties as to the thickness, ingredients, modes of serving. One can put in meat, or fish, of course, or vegetables — one by one, or all together. One can put there bread, milk, butter. Even a chicken. Some say — even a turtle, but those are ‘rumors.’ But what you have in your house, of course, you can put into your soup, or else you can put there nothing — every time you will have a new, pleasant variety, to keep warm, to feel full, to be healthy.
There is only one substitute giving the same warmth and energy — wine. Given the choice, one had better take soup. The Platov family did, and they never regretted it.
Pieces of sugar, slices of bread, portions of milk — all was counted in that house. Father and Mushka, the oldest and the youngest, had the best pieces, the two boys the biggest, the girls had the rest, but Mother was not hungry because, if one would believe her words, she had eaten while preparing food. Food was counted, that is, except soup. One could have two plates of it, or even three, for by adding some boiling water when preparing it, one could augment the soup’s quantity indefinitely.
Father, sitting at the head of the table, would cross himself and start eating. Then all would follow his example, and that first course would be eaten slowly, in silence.
Surprises would begin usually at the second course, for which ‘happenings’ were served. And the third course was tea. Sometimes that second course would be a piece of meat, which ‘happened,’ or a piece of pie which ‘happened’ to be sent in by a lady living in the next house, or some fish when a friend would catch it in the Sungari River, but if nothing ‘happened,’ then tea would follow the soup immediately.
Tea was the most important, interesting event of the day. It meant relaxation. The first cup was given to the father. His teacup was an old one, brought from Russia. It was generousbellied, and there was an inscription in big golden letters: ‘Please, one more.’ The last golden letter had disappeared from the surface no less than five years ago, but the Platovs not only could still read the inscription but also showed it to visitors: ‘Look! Old orthography.’ At the same time Mushka would bring him his books. They were two — Pushkin’s poems and Milton’s Paradise Lost. Mr. Platov never condescended to read any other book.
The rest of the family kept busy with small jobs — mending, writing, washing, knitting — but always attracted by the samovar, they would approach the table and pour one more cup of tea. The samovar was old, from Russia too, from the very place where the best samovars were made, from Tula. It could sing. Its voice was small and piercing, at times, and timid — at other times brazenly boastful. On what this depended, it would be hard to find out: was it the quality of the charcoal, or the occasional currents of air between the pieces of coal — who knows? That samovar had so many melodies that an average symphony orchestra would be smitten with envy. Listening to those sounds, the father could forecast the weather, the mother knew how her family felt, as if the samovar voiced their common mood.
If the samovar stopped singing, Galina would silently bring more charcoal. This was enough for inspiration. Real artists are easily started on a new burst of effort. If somebody’s hands grew cold or numb, one had only to put them to the samovar’s side. There was no end to the small services which the samovar obligingly discharged for Platov’s family.
Occasionally somebody would start a ‘celestial traveling.’ Although there was no special ritual for its beginning, everyone recognized it the minute it started.
A typical ‘celestial traveling’ would begin like this.
Glafira, mending a sock, would suddenly halt and, looking at the hole, would say musingly: —
‘How strange! The hole is just like South America.’
‘South America?’ Grisha would raise his head from his book. ‘They have summer there right now.’
‘Summer? It depends where ... if nearer to the South Pole . . .’ And Kostik would be busy with the map.
‘Mamma! Why don’t we ever go to South America?’ Mushka would ask in a voice trembling with apprehension that she was not being given all the best in the world.
‘How would we get visas?’ All would speak now.
‘That has been our mistake.’ Mme. Platova would poke her head out of the kitchen. ‘First we looked for the visas and then went where the visas said to go. We must first choose the country, the one which suits us well, and then try how grand we are at getting visas . . .’ And she would disappear again.
‘It all depends on luck,’ Glafira would say gaily. ‘We might go, and live there happily, having our own, big house and . . .’
‘And a garden,’ Galina’s sigh would be heard.
‘With trees? Mamma! With trees?’ Mushka would cry.
‘What else?’ The father would put his book away. ‘A garden means trees. Good fruit trees . . .’
‘I will water them.’ This from Grisha.
‘In my room,’ Galina would whisper almost inaudibly, ‘I should like to have white curtains and a pot of geraniums under the window . . .’
‘I will build an electric engine,’ Kostik would say in a businesslike tone, ‘water, light, electric fan, refrigerator, radio.’
‘The radio must be in the farther part of the house’ — Mme. Platova was again on the threshold. ‘Remember, Father needs rest . . .’
‘Well,’ Father would say placidly, ‘sometimes ...’
‘But Father will not work,’ and Glafira’s voice would sound almost indignant. ‘No! He would take a drive in his carriage . . . and then rest . . .’
‘Mamma, Mamma, what is the name of the horse? They never told me . . .’ And tears would make Mushka’s voice tremble.
‘Valparaiso,’ Kostik would say in a basso.
‘But I want a kitten,’ Mushka would cry.
‘And I want a dog,’ Grisha would answer.
‘You may have them, you may have them.’ Father would be all generosity.
‘And also an ass . . .’
‘ Only not near my window . . .’
Mme. Platova would enter the room with a decisive step and say almost angrily: —
‘Stop it! There is nothing better than a cow in the family ... A cow we buy first . . .’
In this family Lida was to spend the six weeks of her visit to Harbin.
Mr. Rind’s first move was to go to the Soviet Consulate for a visa and permission to stay in one or two places while crossing the U. S. S. R.
‘Can you speak Russian at all?’ the Consul asked him in English.
‘Almost not at all,’ Mr. Rind confessed.
‘What newspapers are you reading here in Harbin?’
Mr. Rind said that he had read none. Could the Consul recommend somebody with a fine knowledge of English, Russian, and Chinese to help him read the papers?
‘Well,’ the Consul said readily, ‘I will be glad to help you. I can send you someone . . .’
Only then did Mr. Rind realize that he had invited a communist into his service, and that perhaps the Consul had his own reasons for being so ready to help; perhaps he wanted to know more about Mr. Rind while waiting for Moscow to approve granting him a visa.
But to refuse now would not be civil.
‘And after all what am I afraid of?’ Mr. Rind braced himself with this question. ‘I am not connected with any political party.’
Still his anxiety grew and grew until it became out of any proportion to the fact. Even his dreams were disturbed that night. He saw a huge man with a mass of tangled hair on a heavy head, with long drooping mustaches and an unkempt black beard. They had a quarrel. The man clenched his fist and beat the table. Full of indignation Mr. Rind woke up.
The first thing to do is to decline the Consul’s offer, he decided.
At the same moment the door opened and the Chinese waiter entered with his morning tea. On the tray was also a letter in which the Consul wrote that the translator was due at the hotel at ten o’clock.
This left no way to a decent retreat and Mr. Rind decided mournfully to bear it.
At ten there was a knock at the door.
Here’s the scoundrel now . . . Mr. Rind thought and he added aloud: —
The door opened and a girl stepped in timidly. She was almost a child. Her round and pale face, bobbed hair, her gray eyes, clear and naïve, her white blouse and black skirt, her heavy shoes, made her look a child from an orphanage. A life of poverty and privation was stamped on every detail of her appearance and clothing.
Mr. Rind gasped.
‘How do you do,’ he said, and introduced himself.
In a melodious voice she said that she was — her official name — Comrade Dasha, that she knew Russian and English well, that she could speak fluently the local Chinese dialect and read newspapers, but that the books of Chinese classics were beyond her knowledge.
This latter could have been an excuse for sending her away, but Mr. Rind did not catch at it.
‘Please sit down,’ he said gently.
Mr. Rind opened the newspapers. He explained his requirements. Comrade Dasha first read the article quickly for herself and then described its contents to Mr. Rind. It was evident at once that she was a well-trained translator. She immediately grasped the essentials, explained the leading idea, and always used the most accurate words. Her mind was simple, clear, and logical, devoid of deviations.
When Mr. Rind expressed his pleasure and praise she looked at him with grateful eyes. She said she had received her education in a special school which prepared young people for future work in foreign countries. She had been trained in Chinese, and she had been looking forward to living and working in China.
‘What kind of work?’ Mr. Rind asked.
‘Propaganda,’ she said simply.
Here a noise rising from the street outside attracted their attention.
‘What can that be?’ Mr. Rind asked, as they went to the window.
‘A Chinese procession,’ Dasha said.
An immense crowd was moving slowly along the street. Chinamen clad in rags. Some of them were carrying banners, poles on which were fastened broad strips of cloth with the inscriptions in huge Chinese characters. From time to time, as though at a signal, they would stop, wave their banners, and shout fiercely in unison.
‘This is a political demonstration,’ Dasha said. ‘They are in favor of Japan and the New Order.’
‘Do the Chinese like it?’
‘ Those people? ‘ And Dasha pointed her finger in the direction of the pavement. ‘They are hired. They have no political knowledge at all. They cannot read their banners, and they do not care. You can hire them for anything. Such people are easy tools in any hands.’
They watched the procession silently.
‘Let’s go down where we can see closer,’ Dasha said.
On the street, in her cheap and ugly coat and beret, Dasha looked even more like a child from a charity institution. Mr. Rind, tall and even elegant in his coat, made a queer-looking companion to Dasha.
‘You wait here,’ Dasha said. She plunged into the slowly moving crowd and disappeared. Presently she reappeared, exhausted, her beret in her hands.
‘Gratitude to Japan, for release and freedom. It is the municipal council who pays.’
‘Pays what?’ Mr. Rind asked.
‘Money,’ Dasha said simply. ‘All those in the procession are hired at ten cents per man, to march from the bank of the river to the Green Market, that is across the town. They have to stop four times, before official buildings, and cry there the slogan for fifteen minutes each time. For every hundred Chinese there is one leader — a Japanese — who is responsible for seeing that photographs are taken at the right moment. It is also he who sees that the terms are kept.’
‘But why is Japan doing it?’
‘Building up a public opinion — in Japan and abroad. The photos will be sent everywhere to show how glad Chinese are to have the New Order in Asia.’
‘ Mr. Rind, do you like the arts? ‘ Dasha once asked.
‘The arts? What arts?’
‘Arts in general. Poetry, music, dance . . .’
‘I could stand some, I think,’ Mr. Rind replied.
‘Then let us go to the Workmen’s Club. You will see our proletarian arts.’
‘Are they something new?’
‘They are different. We discard all which does not promote our ideals. We are for union in arts too, not for disintegration, therefore we do not encourage individualistic flights into nonsense.’
‘Now, now . . . you speak like a textbook.’
‘We think their worth is in keeping us warm and lighted on our way, while we are building a new life,’ Dasha went on.
‘You must not try your propaganda on me,’ Mr. Rind laughed.
The next afternoon they went to the Club. It was a communistic club, although it did not bear that name openly. Dasha explained that owing to the disquiet in the town they would have an exclusively artistic program, speeches and discussions not being allowed. The police had to be present.
Mr. Rind and Dasha found seats in the sixth row. At once Mr. Rind began to look around discreetly. Groups of people speaking loudly, laughing gaily, slowly filled the other seats.
They were proletarians, there could be no doubt of that. The stooping shoulders, the heavy steps, the square knuckles — all labeled them working people, the descendants of generations of working classes.
There was a certain lack of selfrestraint : voices too clamorous, gestures too broad, faces too outspoken. If they wanted to stare, they stared or coughed, or sneezed, without trying to hide the fact. The petty conveniences of social life were absent. All were poorly clad. The girls were not too pretty and the women were neither powdered nor wellgroomed. They seemed faded, tarnished, as if their freshness were washed out in toil. Their hands were heavy, and their movements somehow clumsy.
Although communism was new, it nevertheless had already produced a standardized type, and with more or less prominence those new traits were found in each person there. It was a simplicity, almost a rudeness of clothing, of manners, of faces, of speech. But that rudeness was based on some quality, however coarse, of integrity, as if they had been hewn in haste out of the same stone, not long ago, as if they had not yet acquired the polish which comes from constant use, and moved with unstable pace, blindly pushing the fragile things out of their way.
Their relations among themselves seemed to be extremely friendly. A kind of spiritual unity, compactness, characterized that gathering. Instinctively Mr. Rind felt alien and on his guard.
Dasha said to him that a young and famous ballerina from Soviet Russia, a Sasha Vorobieva, would dance.
When the ballerina appeared on the stage she upset all Mr. Rind’s ideas about dancers. She was a very young girl, thin, somehow squat, with a round flat face. Her eyes were narrow, the cheekbones high and the mouth wide. She was almost ugly.
She wore black cotton shorts and a woolen pullover. On her bare feet a pair of ballet slippers. In her bobbed hair she had a cheap round comb, like Dasha’s. She looked like another girl from the same orphanage.
Yet ballerina Sasha Vorobieva was met with tremendous applause. She smiled back simply and stood in a sturdy, unflattering posture, her hands in the pockets of her pullover.
Then she took off her pullover and threw it aside — and this sudden fleeting movement of her arms was strangely suggestive of the wings of a bird. But then again she was standing quietly in her white sleeveless blouse — again almost ugly.
The sounds of the piano rolled forth and a sudden change swept over the ballerina. She was tall now, tall and slender, all grace and fluent lines. At the first chords of music she rose on her toes, all tension, like a vibrant chord. In a continuous and fluent movement she left the earth and moved in air. She lifted her arms, high, then suddenly broke their lines into sharp angles at the elbows and put the palms of her hands flat to her cheeks. Her chin was high and the skin drew tight on her face. She was all moving angles in the outline. Her face grew pale and eyes remote, as if she were moving backward, further and further and faster and faster. Then in a sudden and powerful motion she was high in the air, she soared, defying the laws of matter, of weight, of gravitation. Her face, all drawn, was a tragic mask now, but her eyes were full of bright triumphant light. Her arms, her body and legs, in their constant fluent movements, created a series of unbroken lines, where past and future met, and the eye could not catch where she really was at any given moment. Then, in a final movement of her dance, she threw up her right hand, and it seemed that with her palm she flung upward the eyes and hearts of the audience.
‘It is “Inspiration,”’ Dasha whispered.
After the tempest of applause ballerina Sasha Vorobieva stood again an ugly child, only now she seemed smaller.
Then followed singing, and Mr. Rind’s heart softened. Then a man on the stage called ‘Comrade Dasha.’
‘It is for me,’ Dasha said and hastily she thrust a piece of paper into Mr. Rind’s hands. ‘Translation,’ she said and quickly walked down the aisle. The man on the stage gave her his hand and she clumsily jumped up to the stage. Dasha seemed to be universally known and liked, for people looked at her with friendly and encouraging smiles. Then she began to read a poem. She read with restrained fervor, with an exquisite sense of rhythm and measure. Enthusiasm and faith rang in her voice.
Mr. Rind listened and was sad. He pitied that faith, that pathos — and that child. For he sincerely saw no future for communism. What did that child know about it all? With her purity and adamant faith, with that childlike and simple approach to people, with those eyes of hers which could not lie, she seemed the incarnation of truth. And he thought that he must try to change the course of Dasha’s life.
‘I can and I should like to give you means to go to the United States,’ he said on the way home. ‘You would go through a college there, if only for a while to see life from another point of view. . . .’
She looked at him with her childish gaze and then said: —
‘Do you think I am not happy as I am now? Do you want me to live on charity?’
‘No,’ said Mr. Rind, ‘but you are very young, and very naïve. And you are giving your future, the whole of your life, to ideas which you have accepted without criticism, which you even cannot criticize, having not seen better. You are not fair to yourself. Why not spend some years abroad? The rest of your life is at stake.’
‘Mr. Rind,’ she said, ‘you are kind, but you do not understand. Why do you pity me? Because you have been accustomed to think that richness and comfort are equivalents for happiness and sense of life. The roughness of my existence hurts you, because you like me. But for the millions of other girls, you accept it without objection. In your system you give your girls silk stockings, instead of freedom . . . We — communist girls — are different. We accept poverty. We accept misery. We count on no personal rewards, nor even on personal happiness. Women now stand in the front ranks . . .’
‘Dasha,’ Mr. Rind addressed her sadly, ‘all this means much suffering .. .’
She stopped. She looked at him with startled eyes.
‘Do you think one can live without suffering?’ A wondering pity was in her voice.
‘Do you mean one could live without suffering?’ she repeated. ‘But look!’ she cried. ‘Only look around! What do you see?’
He stopped and looked around.
They were on the border of the Chinese part of Harbin, in Fu-dia-dian. The pavement was crowded with vehicles, rickshaws, and people who crossed the street wherever and whenever they chose. It was the peaceful commotion of overpopulation. Only the extraordinary dexterity of Chinese drivers and passers-by saved the moving mass from crumbling down and being trodden upon.
‘Do those people not deserve a better life?’ Dasha asked. ‘Look at the poverty. Look how bravely they fight to earn something . . . Listen.’
Mr. Rind could not analyze all the sounds he heard. Life itself made sounds in China. The artisans and wandering salesmen, the blind musician, the fortunetellers — all had their instruments belonging by tradition to their profession, and those instruments gave forth the special sounds particular to them. The cobbler beat a small gong, the tinker made sounds with thin pincers, some had special rattleboxes — and almost all helped themselves with special throaty cries.
And the whole was impregnated with smells. The smell of food predominated. Hot food was sold in the open: fritters, pancakes, roasted chestnuts.
Everything was dusty and dirty: curbs, pavements, walls, windows, and more than half of the people, for poverty was but too visible. Beggars of all kinds and states of invalidity and deformity cried aloud their desolation. They cried in vain, for nobody paid any attention to them.
At the corner, Mr. Rind saw a terrible sight: a body — although still living, it could not be called a human being — a body half naked, half covered with rags of sackcloth, crawling on its fours. The exposed parts of the body revealed some terrible skin disease.
‘Leprosy,’ said Dasha shortly.
‘What?’ Mr. Rind gulped.
‘Leprosy,’ Dasha repeated.
‘But is he allowed . . .’ Mr. Rind began.
‘Illnesses are free in China,’ Dasha said.
He grasped her hand. ‘Are you not afraid?’
‘Afraid?’ She looked at him closely.
‘ Of what? ‘
‘What?’ He was angry. ‘Illness! Death! ‘
‘Death?’ She smiled a new and strange, exalted smile. She said ‘death’ with flight in her voice, as a poet would say ‘glory,’ or ‘love,’ or ‘beauty,’ or ‘youth.’ ‘Why not death, Mr. Rind, if it helps our brothers?’
Mr. Rind’s feeling for Comrade Dasha developed into an exquisite and affectionate friendship. It was mutual, too. However great was the outward difference between the two, they had something in common. They both secretly yearned for a warmer life and for less loneliness.
Dasha was an orphan. She never had known her parents and had no idea who her parents were. She was bred in an orphanage. Nobody remembered who had placed her there. She was written down into the ledger as a ‘female child N67.’ From ‘female child N67’ she had been promoted to ‘Octiabrina,’ in honor of the October Revolution, but she could not pronounce her name very well and therefore, when she was five years old, she became finally established and recognized in this world as Dasha. Nobody ever came to claim Dasha. She was nobody’s. She belonged to the state.
She went through her doleful childhood, always underfed, always pale, always afraid of something — from hand to hand — those cold and too brisk hands of hired nurses — from class to class — led by the overworked yet still fanatical teachers, from room to room shared with other orphans. Everybody was always tired. Children were treated as a collective burden, all given the same food, the same clothing, the same lessons, medicine, and tasks.
Then Dasha was accepted into a girl pioneers’ group — and a whole world was opened before her. Here she met, for the first time, an interest toward her personally, sympathy, coöperation. She answered these with such a warmth, with such a devotion, that at once she became a centre of the group, an outstanding figure. This attracted to her the attention of the adult leaders and she was accepted into higher groups of communist youth organizations. Her credo was formed there instantly and forever: there were only two groups of people, wanton oppressors and innocent victims, and her duty became clear-cut — she had to fight against the first on behalf of the second. Now with joy, with faith and hope, she moved from the pioneers into the Comsomol, and from there to the school of propaganda; then from Russia to Manchuria, studying the Chinese language, making friends and meeting different people following the same line. She was happy.
Still there remained in her heart the obscure longing of a child for a family. When she saw the simple and natural way in which love and devotion cement a family, she felt the bitter sadness of a beggar standing alone at the crossroad with outstretched hand.
Now they found each other — Mr. Rind and Dasha — and a mutual affection, steadily growing, tied them to each other.
Mr. Rind was both attracted and aghast by the appalling consistency of Dasha’s nature. They spent hours in eager conversation. They spoke with the utmost sincerity. Communism was their constant topic. Mr. Rind attacked it, Dasha defended it. He assailed her with his education, logic, experience as weapons. She had only her fanaticism as a fortress.
‘Mr. Rind,’ Dasha said, ‘I do not like the way you put it all: “your life,” “your martyrdom.” Why? It is much simpler. We are not heroes, or poets, or something. We are just plain workers. What we do — is our conception of our duty. This is simple human honesty. Life is not a play, nor a romantic novel, it is a forge.’
Little by little small details of conversation helped Mr. Rind to a fuller picture of Dasha. She was only twenty. Her life was one of daily privations. She knew nothing of luxury and comfort. For instance, she had never tasted chocolate. When Mr. Rind offered her a box of candy she refused, because she did not want ‘to form the pernicious habits of luxury’ — she said those words in her usual grave manner. She lived as an ascetic and behaved like a stoic. She never had a separate room for herself, never owned a trinket, never wore any but the cheapest dresses. Like all the rest of her girl comrades, she bobbed her hair not because of the fashion, but because the shorter the hair the less it demands of soap and water — and those were their efforts to save the party’s money. She wore a small round comb in her hair, because, in the long run, it would cost less than hairpins which could be easily lost, thus undermining the party funds. She lived on the strictest and most economical budget, she grudged every expense for herself, for she was living on party money, and it must be spent on the coming world revolution. Dasha never had silk stockings, face powder, handbags, straw hats, ribbons, laces, perfumes, brooches, rings, scarfs, and other things of that kind. And she never wanted them.
Mr. Rind pitied her, and she pitied Mr. Rind, In her opinion, America was a capitalistic country, politically and socially backward and, therefore, doomed and unhappy. When Mr. Rind said the American workers had the highest standard of living in the world, she accepted that and only said that higher salaries do not make people freer. Russians are paupers, but they have the joy and pride of building a free life for the future, for the coming era of universal happiness.
She pointed out to Mr. Rind how lonely he was in his own class where all is founded on competition, while in her class life meant coöperation. She would find a home and support and welcome everywhere on the globe where there is a communistic unit.
Dasha refused Mr. Rind’s offers of candies, of fruit, of luncheons, of teas, of cinemas. She needed nothing. Only once she halted before a florist’s window and, looking at a sheaf of roses, said: —
‘I should like to know who, and to whom, and when one gives things like that ... I wonder . . .’ And she was lost in contemplation.
‘Well, Dasha,’ Mr. Rind said, ‘suppose you tell me when your birthday is, and I will send you flowers like those.’
‘No,’ she cried eagerly, ‘I would be ashamed of that money spent on me. Now, when every third child on the globe is underfed . ..'
Mr. Rind was not inclined to listen to Dasha pleading humanity’s cause. He smiled.
‘You prefer then to wait until every girl of the universe will have roses. Those are your ideals: every girl having the same roses at the same time. Would it not be tedious? Would it not make it stale?’
‘Does it seem tedious to you to know that everybody has one’s cup of tea in the morning, like you? It must make one’s breakfast not stale, but more enjoyable.’
Lida and Dasha had seen each other occasionally in the lounge of the hotel, when Lida came in with Mme. Manuilova, and Dasha was leaving with Mr. Rind. Both girls knew each other.
One day they met face to face and instantly recognized each other. Belonging to Russia’s two hostile parties, they could never look for a real meeting. But now they met, and one minute seemed a long time, while they studied each other.
Then Lida — first — moved forward the two steps which separated them and offered her hand.
‘Let us be friends,’ she said sincerely.
Dasha hesitated for an instant. A dark light of caution flickered in her eyes. Then she made a broad, spontaneous gesture and shook Lida’s outstretched hand.
Between those two girls—personally
—there was no grudge, no rivalry, nothing to forgive or forget. They both were poor, fatherless—because of the same revolution. They both were young and pure and kind. But the shadows of the previous generation’s hatred made them mysterious to each other, as monsters, cruel, treacherous, base. Only their youth was so fresh in them that they still could be moved by the natural human desire to meet one another without reservation, openly.
Mr. Rind had a visitor, Professor Kremenetz, a famous scientist. They had nothing to say to each other and sat at opposite ends of the room.
Why has he come? Mr. Rind thought as he looked at the short, massive, slovenly chid figure. The guest said nothing and did not even look at his host; the expression on his heavy face seemed frozen forever.
‘ The Queen of Spades by Tchaikovsky is the most popular opera among middleclass Russians,’Professor Kremenetz said unexpectedly, and then added: ‘ Will you kindly lend me a needle?’
‘A needle?' Mr. Rind was at a loss. ‘What kind of needle?’
’To sew. My sleeve is falling off.'
‘Sorry, but I am afraid I haven’t any,’ and Mr. Rind tried to look polite.
‘Then would you kindly allow me to ring the bell for a servant?’
‘Why, of course . ..'
‘ Boy,’ Mr. Kremenetz said to the servant when he came, ‘a needle and a black thread to tack on this sleeve.’ He said that in Chinese and the servant answered obligingly: —
‘ May I offer my humble efforts in sewing on your honorable sleeve?’
‘Thank you, but I have plenty of time myself.’
Then Mr. Kremenetz, in his usual exquisitely polite manner, asked for and received Mr. Rind’s permission to do mending in his presence, and taking off his coat he began to sew dextrously.
‘Have you ever been in America?’ Mr. Rind asked in an attempt at conversation.
‘Yes, several times,’ and Mr. Kremenetz took a button from his pocket.
‘In New York?’
‘Yes, three times,’ and he diligently drew the needle through the button.
‘How do you like New York?’
‘ Wh-what ? ‘
‘Old-fashioned,’ Mr. Kremenetz said louder. ‘I mean a town not following the latest tendencies in life and science . . . Backward.’ He bit off the thread and making a knot started to sew on the lining of the sleeve.
‘On what are you basing your opinion?’ Mr. Rind asked in a cooler tone, trying not to show how much he felt offended by his visitor’s casual remark.
‘There are many reasons . . . Which side of the question interests you most?’
‘You mentioned science?’
‘Yes. Biologically, such big towns mean degeneration. Psychologically, they accentuate hatred and envy. Economically, they show deficits, if one takes into consideration prisons, asylums, and the like which are needed to keep towns going. From the hygienic point of view, they are a threat to health....’
‘Are there other motives?’
‘Many. Such towns are harmful to talent, dangerous for honest civic and political workers.’
‘Yes. They are — in many of their parts — ugly in appearance, vulgar linguistically, dangerous during wars . . . would you like some more motives?’
‘No, thank you.’
‘You are welcome.’ Mr. Kremenetz bowed. He looked with pleasure at his coat, put it on, and said: —
‘Now nobody could find a word against my looks, for I am going to the opera tonight.’ And bowing again with deference to Mr. Rind, he asked: —
‘May I have the honor to invite you for a dinner here, in this hotel, and to be my guest at the opera afterwards?’
‘Oh, thank you,’ Mr. Rind bowed in answer.
To Mr. Rind’s astonishment Mr. Kremenetz’s looks startled nobody. He was greeted with a kind of reverence by the customers of the restaurant and with homage by its servants, for this was China, where a scholar is always held in a high esteem, whatever might be his attire or his financial standing. For Russians, too, a glorious scientific reputation has charm stronger than that of money or a high official standing.
The dinner turned out to be a most pleasant affair.
‘Nature is lavish,’ Mr. Kremenetz was saying. ‘There is always overproduction and waste in her industry. She just amuses herself with the process of creation. So many find themselves outside of the play, on the margins of life. I was one of them: the seventh child of my parents. The third husband of my wife. The second stepfather to her son.’ He paused.
Mr. Rind thought that this moment would be proper to offer one’s sympathy, but Mr. Kremenetz proceeded:—
‘This is a happy situation. I have lost my country, my social rank, my library, my manuscripts, my property.’ He sighed happily. ‘And with all that, my responsibilities. Now I live how I like. This is happiness.'
‘But I understood you have had to live in lonely places, in India, far from civilized people . . .’ Mr. Rind tried his common sense on the professor.
‘As to being civilized or not, people are basically the same,’ Air. Kremenetz answered.
‘But the absence of comfort . . .’
‘Comfort is tiresome, even stupid sometimes. It takes much time too.’
‘But there are pleasures . . .’ Mr. Rind ventured.
‘They are the same in the savage Countries,’ Mr. Kremenetz answered.
The conversation wandered aimlessly, at random. Mr. Rind enjoyed his host. He relaxed in the ease which seemed to be Mr. Kremenetz’s aura.
Mr. Rind had never expected to find in Harbin an auditorium of such beautiful architectural proportions and inner ornaments. Built by Russians long ago, in times of prosperity, it stood as a relic of the past.
An atmosphere of excitement and joy pervaded the whole.
It was contagious. Mr. Rind felt his heart exhilarated by the sounds of tuned violins, even beating a little faster, impatient to see the curtain up, for a good audience is a part of enjoyment, bringing in that joyful animation which is a gift of those who love music.
He saw Lida with Mme. Manuilova. Lida almost danced into the auditorium, while her teacher entered solemnly and slowly.
Then heads turned around, for the Belle of the Town was making her picturesque entrance. She did not use the main door, but appeared in the frame of the small side door and stood there for a while looking before her with those big gray eyes — sad and wondering — the eyes of romance.
Tall, exquisitely built, with the small head of the immortal Psyche — all delicate, fragile, melancholic — she had the charm of absurdity, for she looked absurd as a living being, a modern young girl of the small and poor provincial town. She was clad in a pale-yellow taffeta dress, cut low at the bodice and very long and full in the skirt. She held in her hands a small muff made of tiny fresh roses and warmed there her long white fingers. The fact that she was supposed to feel chilly in the overheated room and sought warmth in that cool muff added to the absurdity of the vision.
But she appealed to an obscure longing for the romantic and she had the gift of creating illusions.
Of course all knew, but willingly forgot, that her dresses she sewed herself, the taffeta was begged on credit from a Chinese peddler, the roses were given by an unhappy florist madly in love with her, and her girl rivals had no doubts that the Belle’s stockings were richly mended . . . But is it of any importance of what beauty is made?
There she stood, her exquisite head tilted a little toward her right shoulder — and she seemed to have no connection with the trivial details of life. Just because she looked like a Psyche, a Manon, a Mignon — everything, except a common, living girl — she was the acknowledged belle of that fantastic town.
‘Look at that audience,’ Professor Kremenetz was saying in his freshly mended coat as he bowed to his friends. ‘After the World War the economic situation of Europe was shaken, but here, at Harbin, it is unbelievably absurd. Only a few Russians earn regular salaries. The rest live on them. A system of a mutual cross-indebtedness has developed in this town. Besides being indebted to each other, they all — as a group and separately — are indebted to the Chinese — merchants, tailors, shoemakers, landlords . . . and still every year they have a good opera, concerts, symphony. If somebody fails entirely we hear about a suicide. And this usually is performed in style too. The victim goes once more to an opera, a ball, or to church — to have one’s last drop of joy—and then die, leaving a letter behind. I have a collection of those letters . . . they make fascinating reading . . .’
Mr. Rind had nothing to say.
The opera with its compelling charm captivated Mr. Rind’s attention at once. It gave the peculiar happiness known only through the arts: a sudden intensifying of one’s own personality.
There was a moment of climax for Mr. Rind in the middle of the opera. The orchestra began the third entr’acte and Mr. Rind was taken by the penetrating sweet sadness of music peculiar to Tchaikovsky.
It was clear at once that those violins were playing about loneliness; about old age, and death. Yet there was nothing dreadful in it at all. It seemed to Mr. Rind that those human horrors, now brought to their height by violins, then thrown to their depth, and then again lifted and thrown forth in waves, had the beauty of grandeur in them. It was the throbbing poetry of human suffering, the pathos of the last acceptance of the inevitable: old age, loneliness, death. In their sombre beauty they seemed no less beautiful, no less grand than the songs of youth and joy. It was like the sight of an autumn forest at sunset — that gold in gold, that fire in fire, that joy in sadness.
When the third act began, he saw an old woman on the stage — the Queen of Spades— an ominous old lady, but how utterly, unspeakably old, how irrevocably standing on the brink of her grave.
She was sitting by the fire. The portraits of her deceased people on the walls. Her old-fashioned room full of dead souvenirs. The faded flowers — immortelles — the stuffed birds — all was dead or dying in that luxurious room on the stage. The white cap and flowery ribbons looked grotesque on the old woman’s head. And shaking from efforts and nodding that terrible head she began to sing in a screeching voice:
Je ne sais pourquoi . . .
The Queen of Spades was remembering her youth.
‘Mme. de Pompadour!' she sang, and Mme. Manuilova — in her chair made a movement, as if a vista had opened straight into her past, moving backward: from Harbin, to St. Petersburg, to Paris.
‘. . . Why those tears? . . .’ sang the lonely Liza against the bleak background of St. Petersburg at twilight, and the Platov family grew tense with compassion. The Platovs — all the seven of them were sitting in the cheapest seats, in the last row. They were squandering the dollar given by the marine in Shanghai.
‘. . . Day and night ... I torture myself with the remembrance of you. . . .’ and Lida’s face — acutely happy and unhappy at the same time — sparkled with tears. Three weeks! . . . Three weeks without letters! But I could sing like that too . . . she consoled herself hastily and relaxed in enjoyment, lifted high, to the ceiling, with the sounds of Liza’s soprano.
And Professor Kremenetz with the absorbed look of a philosopher on his face looked like Fate itself.
‘How do you like the music?’ he asked after the curtain fell.
Mr. Rind made his usual reply: ‘I am not a connoisseur of it.’ Then he added: ‘I should say it is, perhaps, too emotional, too much passion in it. . . .’
Mr. Kremenetz seemed astonished, ‘But one likes operas exactly because of their absurd routine of passion. Passions are, perhaps, the most real and enjoyable parts of our life. . . .'
At Mr. Rind’s reluctant movement be said: —
‘Take it from one who is consciously giving his life to a passion and never regrets it. Twenty years of passion, to which I sacrifice everything . . .'
‘You mean science,’ Mr. Rind said. ‘Sanskrit.’
‘No. Gambling,’ Professor Kremenetz answered.
Mr. Rind was startled.
‘Do not be surprised,’ said the professor. ‘For you are a gambler too. Everybody is. ‘
‘in this life of ours,’ the professor continued dreamily, ‘in our life so orderly and reasonable at the tirsl glance, there is a preponderance of the irrational forces ... A dealing of cards — and one is born. Marriage — a lottery, career — a race, friendship — backing horses. War and politics — chess. Society — a poker game. A fatal throw of dice — and one is dead.’
( To be continued )
With each twelve months of the Atlantic
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