Carl Joubert.

Russia as it really is online

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„ one passport and chorosho povidenia








261 50

The man signed it with his name, David Margolius,
of Yilna, and added what he hoped would be his
Paris address — 41 Rue Ordinaire.

Then I called in Ivan, and handed over David
Margolius to his charge.

The next morning I asked him how he intended
to get to Tomsk.

" I shall walk," he said. " It is safer."

" But you have nothing to be afraid of," I told
him. " You have clear papers and need not fear
the devil himself. The authorities will hardly be
looking out for you after a lapse of nine months, and
they would not recognise you if they came across

I arranged with our host to send back one of my
servants to Tomsk for the sum of five roubles. The
man had not noticed whether I came with three
servants or two, and his suspicions were not

And so we said farewell to David Margolius.

" Some day, when I return from inspecting my
gold mines, I may meet you in Paris," I said ; " there
is no telling."



But I have never seen or heard of Margolius again
to this day. I hope that he won safely through to
the avuncular residence in Paris ; and perhaps some
day I will call at 41 E-ue Ordinaire, and present
my little account for payment with 5 per cent,



On the seventh day of our journey I knew that
we must be nearing the rota. We had travelled
about 200 miles, and the gallant little horses were
beginning to show signs of wear. There are but few
breeds of horses in the world who could do what
they had done — an average of over thirty miles a
day for six days, with a clumsy droshJca, on bad
roads. But the Tartar steed needs no commendation
from me — his endurance is proverbial.

A tramp on the road begged alms, and I stopped
the droshka in the hope of gaining some information
from him.

He told me that he was on his way to Tomsk, and
that he could afford to be leisurely in his move-
ments as he was not one of those escaped convicts,
for whom he expressed the greatest contempt, and
therefore he was not in a hurry.

I asked him how far we were from Krasnoiarsk,
and he replied that he thought it was about 200

" There is a convict caravan about fifty versts
ahead of you, Bareen," he said. " When you come
up with them be careful of your belongings, for they
will steal whatever they can lay their hands on."


I gave him a small coin and thanked him for his
advice, and we drove on.

The morning was young, and I knew that with
fair "going" we should be on the heels of the rota
by sunset. I was elated and excited at the prospect
of coming to grips with my undertaking. It was
five months since I received Dr. Bogdanovitch's
cablegram in San Francisco, and now, at last, I was
within striking distance of my objective. To-morrow,
perhaps, I should see Kolka. And what then?
Well, I would not return empty-handed to Tomsk,
that was certain. One does not travel 1 1 ,000 miles
at great personal inconvenience for the sake of saying
" How do you do ? " to a convict. I looked from
Petrus, driving the wiry little blacks, to Ivan, canter-
ing on the roadside ; neither of them knew the
errand on which we were bent, but I felt that I
could trust them both to see me through with it.
My third ally I wore around my waist, and I had
greater confidence in the power of my belt than even
in Ivan, the imperturbable.

At five o'clock we arrived at a village and
stopped to rest the horses. I learned from an in-
habitant that there was a Government halting-
station for convicts ten versts further on, and
that the rota had passed through, the village in the
morning, and would be halted there, probably for
several days.

Accordingly I sent Petrus on Ivan's horse to find
a house where we could put up within a verst or
two of the camp. I always employed Petrus as
" quarter-master " as he spoke the dialect of the


country, whereas Ivan was scarcely intelligible to
the inhabitants.

When I gave Petrushka the order — I think it
dawned on his stolid mind that I contemplated the
rescue of a prisoner from the rota — he gave the
invariable answer : " Tak totchno gospodin," and
rode off down the road.

I gave him an hour's start, and then followed,
with Ivan driving, in the droshka.

It was eight o'clock when we arrived at the house
which Petrus had found for our accommodation, a
dilapidated shanty standing a little way back from
the road in a clearing in the forest. The owner of
it was a widow with three grown-up daughters and
a son, a boy of nine years old.

The old woman was anxious to make us as com-
fortable as possible, and ordered the girls about in
the preparation of our supper and rooms.

I noticed that Petrushka had already made him-
self quite at home, and was even paying marked
attentions to one of the daughters, a proceeding
which Ivan regarded with lofty disapproval.

After I had eaten the meal provided, I asked the
widow to stay and talk to me for a few minutes.
She was a garrulous old lady and made no diffi-
culties on the conversational score. She was soon
chattering of her privat aff. ii s to me without re-
serve. Her husband, who had been a convict, died
several years ago. He had been sentenced to voilnoie
poselenia, and, after serving his term, had settled in
the country. She had been thirty years in Siberia, and
all her children had been born on the Irkutsk border.


I ventured to ask her for what reason her husband
had been convicted. She admitted candidly that he
had been impHcated in a fire which had broken out
in a government building in Smolensk, and had
been sentenced to ten years hard labour followed
by voilnoie poselenia. She had accompanied her
husband to Siberia and they had lived there ever

Having given me this much information about
herself at great length and with many digressions,
she then proceeded to question me.

I was very frank with her. I informed her that I
was going to the Government of the Amurs to visit
a friend who was interested in a gold mine there, and
that I should probably visit China before my return.
The ice having thus been broken, and a friendly
footing established between us, I turned the conver-
sation to other channels. And it was not long
before we were on the subject of convicts and their
treatment. On this point the old lady was full of
information. She told me that at some time or other
every convict makes an attempt to escape. Her
husband had several golden opportunities ; but at
the last moment he had always held back, preferring
to remain quietly with his wife, to await the time
when he could settle down in the territory appointed
to convicts who have served their term. Others
would escape and perish of cold and starvation in
the country. The long, severe winter was all in
favour of the prison guards ; and few who escaped
ever reached Europe ; whilst many of them returned
of theii' own free will.


From the abstract I gradually piloted the old
woman to the concrete, and questioned her on the
neighbouring halting-station and the rota of convicts
which had just arrived there.

" Oh, yes," she said, in answer to my inquiries.
" There is a large rota there now. My little boy
went there to-day, and he tells me there are about
600, many of them women. It is a regular village.
I am sure I hope we shall make something out of

I did not understand what she meant, but she
explained that when a rota was encamped at the
halting- station her daughters went with provisions
to sell to the prisoners. In fact, she regarded the
advent of a caravan of prisoners as a sort of " season,"
when trade might be regarded as brisk.

" In my husband's life-time we made a lot of
money from the camp ; but it was a dangerous
game, and we don't do that any longer."

Here again was an enigmatical statement. What
was it, I asked myself, that her husband had done
which she dared not do ? But it is a difi&cult thing
to fix any statement made in the garrulous, irre-
sponsible chatter of an elderly widow, and I let it
pass with a mental note. I asked her about the
escort, and learned that the caravan was under the
command of a captain, who was apparently slack in
his duties, as it was reported that several of the
prisoners had escaped from under the noses of the
escort. I was glad to hear that.

At this point in our conversation Ivan entered the
room and asked permission to speak to me. The old


lady withdrew, and Ivan closed the door behind

" Bareen," he said impressively, " believing that
the movements of the rota are of interest to you, I
went to the halting-station this evening ; and I have
ascertained that they are to march again on Thursday

" Thank you, Ivan," I replied. " Are the horses
all right?"

" They will need several days' rest, Bareen, other-
wise they will be useless when we want them. To-
day is Monday, by Thursday they will be rested."

I told him to get some sleep and let Petrus mount
guard. And he withdrew in stately silence. Then I
called in the old lady again and we continued our

" So some of the prisoners have managed to
escape," I said, taking up the subject where it had
been dropped.

The old woman looked at me curiously, and then

" Why not trust me, Bareen ? " she asked con-
fidentially. *' You can speak without ceremony to
me. I will serve you if I can."

" Very well, then," I answered. " Listen to me.
There is a certain young man in the rota whom I
am going to rescue. The caravan will be at the
halting-station until Thursday morning, and I must
get him away before they leave. If you can help
me to accomplish this successfully I will give you
200 roubles for yourself and a 100 for each of your
children — 600 roubles in all. But if I find that


there is any treachery on your part, or if you do
anything to upset my plans, I will not be responsible
for what may happen to you and your children.
Do you understand ? "

The old woman fell to crossing herself vigorously,
and calling on the Boje Materi to bear witness that
she would serve me with her life. Her excitement
was so great that her words were scarcely intelligible.
I gathered from the torrent of eloquence which my
offer and threat called forth, that she doubted the
existence of so great wealth as 600 roubles, that she
would be quite content to do anything I asked her
for ten, and that the Holy Mother and various saints
would back her up in her honest efforts to earn a
little money.

When she had calmed down I produced a fifty
rouble note and handed it to her as a token of good
faith. She took it in a hand trembling with emotion,
and fingered it lovingly. Never in her life had she
possessed so much money at one time, and it was
impossible for her to realise that 550 roubles more
might be earned in two days. She began to cry
hysterically and flung herself on the ground, kissing
my feet and declaring that the Holy Mother had
sent me from heaven to bless her and her children.
The situation was embarrassing ; but there was
nothing for me to do but submit to her blandish-
ments and await her return to a practical frame of

Presently she rose from the floor and sat down
again at the table, and there was an expression of
alert cunning in her .eyes, which gave me hope that


she would prove a useful ally, and cheap even at 600

" Well," I said, " how do you propose to earn
your money, matushka ? "

She came across to me, and laying her hand on
my arm said :

" Come with me, Bareen, and I will show you

She led the way to a small, ill-furnished bedroom
at the back of the house. In the corner was a plain
wooden bedstead, which she requested me to help
her to move. We carried it out into the middle of the
floor, and taking a pointed steel rod from the
corner she prised up a board in the floor, and then

" You can go in there, Bareen," she explained,
pointing to the hole in the floor. " And you can
come out sixty paces away in the forest."

As I peered into the black cavity below the floor
a sensation came over me as though I were dreaming,
and the little old woman holding the flickering
candle above her head and standing at the edge of
the abyss appeared to me as the genie in an Arabian
tale. I almost expected to see Kolka emerge from
the opening and fling himself into my arms. The
whole episode seemed absurd and extravagant, and
I laughed. My laughter awoke me ; but still the
little old woman was standing by the side of the hole
in the floor with her candle in her hand, looking at
me with cunning eyes.

" But why ? " I exclaimed, pointing downwards.

" My husband worked at it, on and off, for five years,"


she replied, " and it brought him in a Uttle money.
But no one has been there since my husband died."

Then I began to understand what the old woman
meant when she said that in her husband's day they
used to make a lot of money out of the prisoners'
camp at the halting-station.

I had evidently come to the right house for

The old woman put the boards in their places,
and we carried the bed back to the corner of the
room. No one could have guessed at the existence
of the subterranean passage from the appearance of
the floor, the boards fitted exactly, and the bed
stood above them in ingenuous simplicity.

" I will send Soinia down to-morrow to see that it
is all clear," said the old woman, leading the way
back to my room. " And if you, Bareen, will do as
I advise you, it will be an easy matter."

It may be imagined I was only too anxious to have
the advice of one who knew the coast so well, and I
assured her that I was all attention.

" Then you must go to the camp in the morning
and try to make the acquaintance of the captain."

I told her that I had a letter of introduction to
him in my pocket.

" That is good," she answered ; " then there will
be no suspicion of you. My three girls will be about
the camp, selling vegetables to the prisoners. Get
your man into their hands, and leave the rest to
them. And keep your two servants out of the way.
They can do no good, and they might excite the
suspicion of the guards."


She took up her candle and went towards the door.

"Good-night, to you, Bareen," she said. "May
the Holy Mother protect you. Fifty roubles ! And
I know not how many more to come. May all the
saints watch over you, Bareen."



In the morning I started out for the camp, wearing
my blue spectacles again. I shall not attempt to
describe my feelings during that short walk of one
mile which led me to my journey's uttermost limit ;
but I knew instinctively that the end was to be

At the halting-station the prisoners were in groups
in the " compound." Some were playing cards for
small stakes, as the heaps of kopeks denoted. Others
were washing their clothes and laying out their red
7'uhashkas to dry in the sun. There were others
who sat with their heads resting on their hands,
thinking. It was probably this accursed habit of
thinking that had brought them to their present
pass ; but still they were thinking, and they cannot
break themselves of it.

I looked anxiously at every group ; but Kolka was
not amongst them. I began to feel apprehensive
lest he had escaped before I could come to fetch him.
The very idea alarmed me ; for I was selfish enough
to wish to effect his rescue myself, since I had taken
so much pains in the matter.

At the outskirts of the camp I could see women
with their baskets and trays, selling trifles to the


prisoners — the widow's daughters were amongst
them, and I have no doubt they marked my arrival.

I approached the entrance ot* a wooden building,
which looked as if it might be the orderly-room of
the commander of the convoy, and gave my letter of
introduction to a soldier who was standing outside,
and requested him to deliver it to the captain. The
man took the envelope and went in, and as he did
so some one passed him coming out of the door. It
was Kolka.

I looked quickly round me ; nobody was near. I
began to hum a song, which had been dear to us
both in our student days at Heidelberg. The notes
reached Kolka, and he started slightly and paused.
I called his name softly, " Kolka ! "

His face went deathly white, and he came a few
steps towards me with uncertainty.

I took off my glasses and looked him straight in
the face.

" I am Carl," I whispered. " Get ready to come
with me. Don't speak. Walk away from me."

He turned obediently and walked off, and as he
went I whispered, " All well at home."

Then the orderly came out and asked me to follow
him. He conducted me through an outer room,
where several soldiers lounged on forms or stared
out of the window, and ushered me into the captain's

He was a plethoric-looking man of about forty,
clad in a white uniform ; and he came forward to
greet me with outstretched hand. He inquired after
the well-being of his friend Dr. Anatovitch, and the


other officers of the garrison of Tomsk, to which
inquiries I replied to the best of ray knowledge,
accepting a cigarette from the case which he proffered.
He spoke in French, and I could see that he was
very proud of his linguistic accomplishments.

I asked him whether he had ever been in London.

" Certainly," he replied. " I know well Piccadilly
and the Continental Hotel. Ah, but I had a gay
time in London ! But I never could learn the
language. There are only five words that I can
remember, and they were always on my lips."

1 inquired what the immortal five words might be ?

" Koom and kiss me kvick ! " he replied, his fat
sides shaking with laughter at the remembrance of
his experiences.

He was quite satisfied with himself, and it was to
my purpose to keep him in a good humour. We
chatted on for some minutes, though I must confess
that most of the captain's conversation went in at
one ear and out of the other. He asked me to stay
and dine with him, and I accepted the invitation, in
the hope of learning something more of the plans of
the convoy, and the arrangements made for guarding
the prisoners.

Dinner was served to us in the office at about two
o'clock. During the meal I questioned him on the
subject of his present duties, and asked whether he
liked convoying prisoners.

" It is tedious sort of work," he answered. " The
common criminals are easy enough to deal with ; but
the ' politicals ' — pfui ! "

He went on eating in silence, and I feared that he


had dismissed the subject with this exclamation of
disgust. But presently he began again.

" The criminals want watching or they will try to
escape ; but we lose very few ' politicals,' unless they
happen to die. The trouble with them is that they
seem to think that they are conducting us to Siberia,
and not we them. They are full of complaints about
everything, and want this, that, and the other, until
my life is almost bothered out of me by them."

He pointed out of the window to a group of
prisoners standing together in the " compound."

" You see that fellow there in the gold eye-glasses,"
he said. I followed the direction of his hand and
nodded assent.

" He is the law amongst the ' politicals ' — a dan-
gerous Nihilist, of the name of Yankevitch. He was
a lawyer in Orel. The cursed fellow puts all sorts
of notions into the others' heads. The man next
to him is a young doctor from Moscow, Grazinski by
name ; and the fellow behind him was a Petersburg
journalist. They are a crew of Nihilists of a des-
perate order."

At that moment Kolka joined the group, and I
asked the captain if he were another dangerous man.

" That one ? Oh, dear no, he is as harmless as a
child. He, too, is a Moscow doctor, Bogdanovitch is
his name. There was likely to be trouble amongst
the others yesterday, and he counselled them to
observe regulations, and kept them in order. I
ordered his chains off for it ; but he refused to have
them taken off unless I treated the others in the
same way. As we shall be in camp here for a few


days, I let him have his way, and told the sergeant
to have all the chains removed until we take the
road again. So I hope they are happy ! "

I turned the conversation to other topics, and
whilst we were still talking a sergeant came in and
saluted the captain.

" A woman in the political ward and her child are
dead, your High-born."

" How is that ? " the captain inquired in-

" Dr. Boo;danovitch and Dr. Grazinski examined
the bodies at my request, and they are of opinion
that the woman strangled her child and then herself
with a rope."

" Damn her ! " said the captain. " It means more
reports to make out."

"May I offer my services in this affair?" I said.
" I should be pleased to make a post-mortem
examination if it would assist you."

" Certainly, doctor," the captain answered. " I
should be obliged if you would. The sergeant will
show you the way. For my part I hate the sight of
corpses. It takes away my appetite for days."

I followed the sergeant out into the " compound,"
thankful to be quit of the company of the brute.
He took me to a small, ill-lighted room and re-
quested me to enter. He would go no further than
the threshold himself; for in Russia, especially
amongst the uneducated classes, there is a fear of
the dead.

On a wooden bench, similar to those I had seen
in the prison at Tomsk, the bodies of the woman and



her child were lying side by side. Poor soul !
She had tasted life, and found it exceeding bitter.
Who shall cast stones at her for trusting to the
mercy of God the life which He had given her, and
the life which she had transmitted to her helpless
child, rather than face the miseries which the span
of human existence held out to both of them ?

The incentives to crime are manifold — some are
revolting, some are pitiable, and some are beyond
the limits of human criticism. In the latter class was
the crime of the miserable woman who lay cold and
dead before me, with her child by her side. Then,
in the presence of the dead, I saw my opportunity.

I went back to the door and called to the sergeant.

" You said that some doctors had already ex-
amined the bodies ? " I asserted.

"Yes, gos2)odm, two doctors who are prisoners
have examined them."

" I should like to see them," I continued. " The
courtesy of my profession demands that they should
be present, even if they are prisoners."

The sergeant bowed to my ruling on the point of
medical etiquette.

" By all means, gospodin. They shall be here in a

He went out, and I heard him call their names

" Dr. Grazinski, Dr. Bogdanovitch, you are

And in a few minutes they came to me in the
little, dark room, where the bodies lay on plank


The sergeant closed the door behind them and
returned to the other prisoners in the " compound."

In a moment Kolka's arms were around me —

" You need not fear Grazinski," he said, " he is my
friend. You can speak before him."

" I have come to take you away," I explained —
and for the moment that was all I could say.

" I knew it ! " said Grazinski. " I knew we should
all escape in time ; but it must be one by one. It is
your turn first, Bogdanovitch — good luck to you ! "

Then Kolka began to reel off a string of questions ;
but I stopped him. There was no time for explana-
tions, only for plans.

" There is only one clear day before you march," I
said ; "it must be to-morrow. I have made all
the arrangements, including passports. Keep close
to those girls who are selling things in the camp,
they will give you word when to go, but don't do
anything on your own responsibility." Kolka looked
doubtfully from me to Grazinski —

" I should like to take Grazinski and Yankevitch
with me," he said, " I can't leave them behind."

" You must arrange that amongst yourselves," I
answered, " and let me know through the girls what
you decide, by noon to-morrow." And then I pointed
to the two bodies lying on the bench before us.

" We are here to investigate the causes of death,"
I reminded them. " Are you both agreed ? "

*' Poor, miserable woman ! " said Grazinski, *' she

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Online LibraryCarl JoubertRussia as it really is → online text (page 14 of 18)