The Way of the Cross/III

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The Way of the Cross by Vlas Mikhaĭlovich Doroshevich, translated by Stephen Graham
Meeting the Fugitives

III

MEETING THE FUGITIVES

OCTOBER 10th.

Early morning. The fields are covered over with hoarfrost which looks like the first snow. The smoke stands in straight columns over the chimneys. There is a slight frost.

O Lord, remember those who wake this morning under the open sky!

In the town of Podolsk, near the bridge, a white flag with a red cross is flying over a two-storey house.

Opposite it a policeman is standing.

—What have you got here? A hospital?

—Nothing of the sort. A relief point for the fugitives.

—And have you any fugitives?

—No, none whatever, none.

I take a glance inside to see how the place has been arranged.

I meet a very pleasant person in charge, a young girl with a kind, simple face, a face such as one often sees.

A face I knew.

Had I met her before in a village school? Or at the time of an epidemic? Or in time of famine?

It's more likely that I never met her before.

But young people with faces like hers are seen everywhere where there is need of help

—For the people.

I shall often meet them now on this way of affliction.

—You haven't any fugitives yet?

—How haven't we any? We have.

—You have?

—Sixteen people.

On the ground floor it's as hot as in a bath-house.

It's difficult to breathe there.

The fugitives are sitting on iron bedsteads covered with grey woollen quilts.

They look like people from a town.

They sit there and they don't go out.

After eight or nine weeks under the open sky they don't want to go out of this suffocating heat.

From Podolsk we go to Little Yaroslavets.

We are borne along in two motor-cars belonging to the All Russian Municipal Alliance.

The high-road is quiet and deserted.

Along it they are carrying only enormous loads of charcoal for Moscow.

And here in Liokopin, fifteen versts from Podolsk, is the first fugitive.

He is striding along.

No one is in the cart.

It is drawn by a pair of fine, strong, well-cared for horses. A good strong cart, with a well-made covering.

The cover is of good American cloth, the sort used for table-cloths. Behind are fastened some Viennese chairs.

The man is well and warmly clothed. His boots are good.

No. doubt he's some sort of farmer.

His face is overcast and gloomy.

He strides like a corporal. How many weeks has be been walking?

Now and then we strike bands of three or five wagons following one another, and we begin to see the fugitives.

And all the horses are fine ones, still,

A strong people.

The carts have no covers, but are tied over with dry uncured bristling calf-skins.

The skins of calves that have died on the road.

And that alone gives to the wagons a pitiful and sinister expression.

They stop at villages, and I cross-question them about the state of affairs.

—Have you any sick?

—No. We're a healthy set.

They praise up their horses.

—How much they've endured! What horses they are!

Along this "Way of the Cross" takes place

—A selection.

A terrible "natural," selection.

I am to see this later on.

All the weak ones perish.

Both of people and cattle.

They are tried by sickness, hunger, and cold.

From Baranovitch to Bobruisk, from Bobruisk by way of Dovsk to Roslavl, and in Roslavl, all the weak ones "remain behind."

Men, women, children, and horses.

These strong people with their strong horses—are like a marsh overgrown with emerald green grass, behind which is a swamp and a quagmire.

"A strong front" which has, however, a dreadful significance.

How many "sacrificial victims" remain behind for only one of these who have got through.

We came through Malo-Yaroslavets with its memorials of 1812.

—Have you any fugitives?

—A few of them come through. They say there are crowds in Medin.

That is all the sign there is of the great "movement of the people."

All:

—They say:

The fugitives do not know whither they are going.

They come along gropingly.

As if in the dark.

No one along the road knows:

—What is coming? How many? What to expect? For what must they be prepared?

The sun has risen higher and it has become quite warm.

Only the shadows of the trees are outlined upon the whitened grass. And in the shadow lies the hoarfrost.

God in one thing has had pity upon the poor earth.

He has sent a warm, and best of all, a dry, autumn.

What would it have been like in—mud? What will it be like when the rain pours down?

How will the fugitives go on then?

It's far on in autumn, and such weather!

The birch woods of fair and sweet Kaluga province stand all golden.

All the colours of gold, from pale yellow to bright crimson.

The variegated forest alternates with evergreen and autumn yellow.

The villages are preparing for their winter sleep.

Earth has been heaped against the walls of the cottages.

The crevices of the walls of the izba have been retrimmed with moss, and the roofs with straw.

Every little cottage looks as if it were wrapped up in a new overcoat.

The village has become a new village.

The peasant women are just the same as ever.

Judging by all signs, by the cleanliness and order of their houses and themselves, they've got quite "straight."

To-day is Sunday, and they're all arrayed in their best clothes.

The peasant women of Kaluga dress themselves beautifully, and in bright colours.

But there is none of the ordinary Sunday excitement.

You can't smell Sunday in the street.

They're only dressed in their best, because

—It's the custom.

Sunday!

The whole village keeps to the custom.

And it's dull now in the villages.

The large village of Ilyinska with its statue of Alexander the Second, glimmers as we pass.

In Russia now there are many villages with statues of the Tsar-Liberator.

We come to Medin and stop in the market-place.

—Any fugitives here?

—Yes, some who've been sent to our district. Look, there are some in the market.

They are selling things, and buying what is necessary, going everywhere.

But they arouse no curiosity, nor any special interest. No one questions them, nor exclaims at their misfortunes.

It's as if they had lived there for a century

And not arrived yesterday from some unknown place.

There proceeds:

—Assimilation.

The country as silently drinks in the river as the river comes silently to it.

See, over there on the right is a whole new settlement.

The little barracks are of newly cut wood.

That's the first relief point on this road.

A man is standing there in the uniform of a provincial watchman.

—Is it possible to look over the buildings?

—Excuse me, your honour, I don't belong to these parts. I'm also one of the fugitives. I'm getting a little warmth.

It is one of the relief points of the Municipal Alliance.

A large white linen sign is hanging up.

—"Relief Point." "Tea for fugitives." "Boiled drinking water."

There are enormous saucepans for stewing beef and making cabbage soup.

Two peasant women are cutting up the beef into small pieces.

One big shed has many long tables for meals.

There are ten people having a meal there.

A two-storey shed with sleeping shelves to accommodate five hundred people, where it is not only warm but hot, thanks to the enormous iron pipes running the whole length of the shed.

At some little distance is another shed—for the sick.

In the open field "places" are fenced round, bearing the notices:

—"For men." "For women."

Very well arranged.

Even in front of the shed where hot water is given out for tea, a wooden barrier has been erected, just as in front of a theatre box-office.

—So as to avoid crowding, and that the people may keep order and come in their turn—explained the provincial watchman.

Afterwards, when we see multitudes of refugees using these "points," the remembrance of these details makes us smile.

But it is good that even here they've begun to do things as they should.

Later, when the great wave of fugitives bursts in upon this place, these warmed buildings will save many a life.

In the meantime:

—Are there many fugitives coming through?

—Not a great many.

But with each ten versts of our onward journey we meet the fugitives more and more often, and the lines of them become longer and longer.

There, on the beautiful shore of the winding River Izvera, in one of its curves, under an acacia, in the clear sweet air a little smoke is curling.

Ten covered carts are encamped there.

The folk have stopped to cook dinner.

Near them sits a policeman in a cart.

I go nearer.

The policeman is talking to an old woman lying on the ground.

—Don't you know that a sick person mustn't lie on the ground like this? You're old, but you must understand that.

The old woman only moans quietly.

—Lift her up and put her in the cart. She'll have rheumatism in all her joints, he explains to me.

—No, let her lie out in the sunshine. Perhaps she'll get warm in the sun—says a peasant, speaking for the woman.

—But isn't she very ill?

—She's quite broken down. Arms, legs, she can't turn her head without crying out.

The old woman only moans.

—But where can you go with her like that? You ought to have asked them to take her in at a hospital somewhere.

—That's impossible. She would be left behind and lost. There's a woman who has lost her husband, doesn't know where he is.

A middle-aged peasant woman is seated on the ground, combing out her long hair.

Her face looks very mournful. Her eyes are staring fixedly at some point in front of her.

And she speaks in a quiet monotonous voice, with no expression at all in it,—it's pitiful to hear her.

—Yes, my husband is lost. He's lost.

—Where was he lost? How was it?

—How can we know where? another peasant answers for her—we don't know anything about it.

—But how did it happen?

—Her husband went to a relief point and got lost in the great crowd. That's how it was. We all went on; he got left behind. There were two roads. Some of us were told to go along one and some were sent along the other. We thought he'd catch us up. But he must have gone along the other road and looked for us there. A whole day went by, he didn't come. And the next day he didn't come.

We've never seen him since. And it's five days now.

—My husband's lost, he's lost! repeated the woman monotonously, still combing her hair.

But where did this happen?

—It was in Yaroslav province, sir. That's all we know, that it was in Yaroslav province. But in what village or hamlet, or where it was—we don't know.

—But it couldn't have been in Yaroslav province. You haven't come through Yaroslav at all. The town of Roslavl, yes, but not Yaroslav.

—That's what I tell them. Roslavl. And they're going all over the place, seeking Yaroslav province—says the policeman.

—Here's a paper that will help you on all occasions when you're seeking the way. Now, I've written down the correct name of the town, Roslavl.

—But where can we look? said the peasant. The earth is great, and there are many roads upon it, and all the roads go in different directions. One man goes this way, another that way. It's no good looking.

And all the people around begin to discuss the hopelessness of the woman's position, just as if she were not there.

—Perhaps it'll happen that you'll meet him somewhere! says the policeman—but you can't get any information from the police reports, as you could in ordinary times. The unfortunate thing is she doesn't know where she is, and she doesn't know where he is. There's nowhere to send an inquiry form. A formal police report would be impossible to obtain.

—It's like being in a desert, says a peasant.

—A desert! I like that. All around such a mass of people, and you say a desert, protests the policeman.

—For us it is a desert. It's dark all around. We can see nothing. It's a desert.

—So she'll be left: neither a widow nor a married wife.

—Perhaps they'll meet, by a miracle.

—She'll be more likely to have to wait. In the next world they'll meet.

—Here a man is lost like a needle in a haystack.

To be left behind.

This is the thought which sends them all forward, in spite of their weariness and failing strength.

They will not wait at the relief points, but go away hungry and dig up a few potatoes at night-time somewhere or other to appease their hunger. They are afraid

—To be left behind and lost:

They hide their very sick folk in their covered carts, fearful lest they should be detained at the relief point and:

—Be left behind.

They bury their dead at night without a service, afraid:

—To be left behind.

A simple breaking of a wheel causes terror to the fugitive:

—I shall be left behind!

—How can I overtake the others?

—They will go into the forest. How shall we find them in the forest?

And they go on, go on, go on, without rest, when their strength is exhausted, sick and dying, as if under the lash of a whip, afraid:

—Of being left behind.

Here a man can be lost, as a needle in a bundle of hay.

—I've lost my husband, he's lost—I can still hear the monotonous expressionless voice of the peasant woman as I leave the encampment.

The man has been drowned in this river of people.

We come to the second relief point of the Municipal Alliance. Farther on we shall see them every fifteen or seventeen versts.

Either a relief point of the Municipal Alliance or of the Northern-Help Society.

Along the whole of the high-road there still remain entire, no doubt from the times of Nicholas I., old little-used post-stations.

Monumental buildings, built "according to the taste of the wise old times."

A one-storey house which can well hold stores of bread, grain, pork-fat, all kinds of country produce,

A large courtyard to hold forage for the fugitives,

The stone apartments of what were once warm stables, where sleeping-shelves can be put-up—and the rest rooms are all prepared to lodge fugitives for the night.

The workmen of the Municipal Alliance and the Northern-Help have quickly and skilfully adapted these buildings.

In front of this first post-station there are already a hundred fugitives.

We are met by a lady, the manager of the relief point.

—I'm quite a veteran—says she.

—I was a sister of mercy in the Russo-Turkish War.

She takes us over the place.

It is in perfect order, a model establishment.

There is excellent strong soup, with plenty of beef in it.

—We often read in the newspapers about the various horrors connected with the fugitives, and we are greatly astonished. Where do the papers get such accounts? There's nothing dreadful here. Not so many sick people. Chiefly peasant women who have given birth to children in the forest, in the cold. Yes, that's so. But no deaths, no graves by the roadside, no horrors. Only where do they get such accounts from? The people are quiet. For instance, there are some who have stopped in front of me and got in my way. I grumble at them a little . . . or rather, I give them a good scolding, and they very obediently move to one side. So where do the papers get their picture from?

An idyll!

—Wait a little, madam, all is yet to come.

The nearer we get to Smolensk province the oftener do we meet with fugitives, oftener, oftener, oftener.

What we have seen is only the first stream of the oncoming flood.

The waves come one after the other, each higher than the other, higher.

There on the right and left of the road, in the forests, under the trees, something white is gleaming.

The affrighted imagination is alert and on guard.

—Crosses?

Not as yet.

They are the fresh stumps of hewn trees.

Whole glades have been cut down.

In the midst of grey ashes are the black spots of extinguished camp fires.

The sun is already setting. It grows cold.

The hewn stumps gleam oftener and oftener.

But if you ask the peasants

—Don't the fugitives do some damage?

They all reply

Nitchevo. Nothing that matters.

In Smolensk province they already begin to add,

—At first they did. But now they have gendarmes in charge of them.

The fugitives are now met in large parties. Ahead of them goes a gendarme on horseback.

—And that's all right? In charge of the gendarmes they do no damage?—I ask.

—Eh, master!—answers the old peasant whom I am questioning—there's no animal that does so much harm when he strays to feed, as man! But they are quiet when the gendarme leads.

It is quite evening now.

Near the station to which we have come are already about sixty carts.

I want to see how food is distributed to the people.

But it is impossible to get into the house.

One window is open, and from that they give out the bread.

A crowd of peasant women are standing by the house.

They raise their arms and hold out their certificates.

—How many there are in the family.

Approaching nearer, I hear a quiet murmur.

Not a cry, not a noise, but a quiet monotonous murmur.

All in one tone, continuously, hurriedly, unceasingly, they repeat one and the same word

—Something strange.

—Me give—me give—me give—me give.

Just like a reader in church, repeating continuously, forty times in succession:

—O Lord, have mercy upon us!

You cannot imagine anything more distressing to the nerves than this uninterrupted, never-silent, monotonous:

—Me give—me give—me give—me give—me give. . . .

A sister with a white kerchief on her head and a crimson face shows herself at the window.

—Yes, we hear. We hear you. We'll give you some—she cries despairingly.

But the crowd continues its sad unceasing murmur.

—Me give—me give—me give—me give—me give. . . .

I learnt afterwards that this "way" was invented entirely by the same turbulent people of Holm province.

All the others wait in silence.

The Holm women repeat unweariedly:

—Me give—me give—me give—me give—me give. . . .

I get into the motor-car and go farther on, but mingled with the whistling of the wind in my ears is always

—Me give—me give—me give—me give—me give. . . .

And for long I cannot get rid of the sound.