From President to Prison/Chapter 15
A WINGÉD GEORGIAN AND HIS "FLYING BAG"
IT was the morning of December 22nd. After crossing the viaduct which joins Pristan, or the commercial section of Harbin, with Novigorod, or the New Town on the hill, I turned down in the direction of the big open square where the Chinese theatre used to stand. Practically the only buildings along this thoroughfare were small dirty inns, bars, billiard-rooms and cheap restaurants kept by Georgians and Armenians. If I remember correctly, it was called "The Street of the Georgians." It was nine o'clock and the street was empty save for two figures about one hundred paces ahead of me, one a man with a large leather bag and the other a soldier with a rifle slung over his shoulder.
From the door of a dingy-looking restaurant the head of a Georgian momentarily peeped out and quickly withdrew. But a second later the door swung wide and a tall, thin Caucasian walked rapidly down the street until he had caught up with the pair. I saw nothing suspicious, until suddenly the Georgian looked around, stopped for a moment and then, with a swift movement, made a lunge toward the man with the bag. A knife flashed, the Georgian snatched the bag and, in full view of the slow-witted soldier, made off like a stag in the direction of the market. He had already turned into the market-place, before the soldier regained his senses and started in pursuit. In the meantime I had joined the chase, making these observations as I ran. When I reached the marketplace, I saw the Georgian running like a hunted animal and seeming hardly to touch the ground. Several times the soldier stopped, as though to shoot at him, but was evidently deterred by his fear of hitting someone in the crowd. Suddenly the chase took a different turn, when some soldiers at the corner of the street barred the way and the fugitive in a twinkling threw the bag over a hedge, flashed his knife and disappeared in a small Chinese shop. From this he made his way out into the labyrinth of low wooden buildings and alleyways behind the market and finally was lost by his pursuers.
In the meantime the soldier had been surrounded and interrogated about the hold-up. He explained that he had been escorting the cashier of the bank on his way to deliver to a steamer captain three hundred thousand roubles.
"I am just going after the bag of money!" exlaimed the soldier. "It was right here that he threw it over the hedge."
I surged in with the crowd through a small gateway in the hedge and then listened to a most characteristic conversation among Russians of this type. Not far from the entrance was a large laundry tub, in which two strong Russian women were washing linen.
"Good morning," said the soldier to the women.
"Good morning, soldier."
"Have you seen the bag?"
"We have seen many bags in our life," laughed one of the women.
"And the one which fell here?"
"Where is it?"
"Where was it? Is that what you want to know?" one of the laundresses again laughed.
"Yes, if that is the way you prefer to put it."
"Someone threw a bag over the hedge," she began to explain.
"That much I know; but what then?" the soldier queried impatiently.
"If you know, then why do you ask?" the woman answered, and, pushing up her sleeves, began scrubbing again.
"Answer! I am all ears," the soldier replied, racked with doubt.
"Then I tell you that someone flung the bag over the hedge," continued one of the women, who had hair as red as a flame and was equally bold and care-free. "And it landed in the tub." Then they both began laughing again very loudly.
"In the tub?" the soldier repeated, carefully examining it, in spite of the fact that it was evident at a glance that there was nothing more than a few garments soaking there.
"Yes, in the tub!" reiterated this red-haired jester.
"And now—now it is not there," the soldier mumbled, pressing his head with his hands.
"No, it is not there!"
"Why?" cried the soldier in desperation.
"It said it had no time to wait for you, you birch log! It flew away."
The loud guffaw of the crowd smothered the laughter of the women and the curses of the soldier. However, just at this moment a policeman turned up on the scene and, stepping up to the laundry women, spoke severely:
"You say it flew away? With whom? Answer me quick!"
Under this influence the women sobered down and one of them, after a moment's reflection, replied:
"There was one more woman with us, Katerina Gusieff. She took the bag and went home to hide it."
The policeman, the soldier and the crowd all went along to search the house, which was in another corner of the enclosure, but neither Katerina Gusieff nor the "flying bag" was found there or ever seen again.
Soon the town forgot about this bag, save the two whose lives it changed—a woman in black, who visited the grave of the murdered cashier, and the stupid soldier who spent a year in prison for his careless performance of duty. But it is always this way in the world: the tears of despair of a single individual or of many do not make a continuing discord or a lasting disturbance in the social life, which after a moment moves on and continues its way indifferent to, and regardless of, the sufferings or emotions of the few. This is the law of human nature, dominated by the struggle for existence. Mankind is under the spell of this struggle, the form of which is changed by the influences of civilization and by the spirit; but man seems not to be able nor to be willing to understand this and, through this understanding, to enter upon a higher plane of social life. Yet this will one day come, will surely come, and its approach is already discernible.