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CHAPTER V
 

A DRAMA OF THE CHARCOAL OVENS

 

MY trip to Harbin with my plans for the railroad and for the big brick oven kept me in town two weeks. Kazik telegraphed regularly his reports on the work, from which I knew that the undertaking was steadily expanding, that about forty Ural ovens were already in operation, turning out thirty tons of charcoal daily, that the staff and labourers were in their quarters and that work on the railway had been commenced, as twelve miles of old rails, an old locomotive and ten flat cars had already arrived.

On my return to Udzimi I was delighted to be able to ride out to Ho Lin on our own branch line, in spite of the fact that the locomotive, running on the unballasted track, rattled in every part and proceeded very gingerly. On nearing the river, I did not recognize Ho Lin, for a new village stood beside and dominated the old one. There were the long thatched buildings for Chinese quarters, my own house with its tall, protruding stove-pipe chimneys and a veranda over which the men had trailed a transplanted Manchurian hop vine, and stores and warehouses with coal, commissariat supplies and tools all about them, while in the distance smoked the lines of ovens built by my assistants. The Manchurian jungle, this dense thicket of tree-trunks and bushes, bound together in defence of its solitude with Virginia creeper, hops and other parasitic vines, seemed to have taken fright at the coming of man and to have fled back to the mountains, leaving only the naked, yellow earth behind. Trees had already been felled for some distance, and I realized at once how well our prompt decision for a railroad had been justified. It was evident at a glance that within a very few weeks we should be compelled to transport the trees a considerable distance to the ovens. The storage sheds were filled to capacity with charcoal and great heaps of it lay outside, covered with protecting strips of bark that had been taken from the larger trees. We could have begun at once shipping out the much- needed charcoal but were forced to await the completion of a proper roadbed.

That first afternoon Samsonoff invited me to his house for tea. On the veranda, also already adorned with a transplanted hop vine, I was met by quite a young woman, Madame Vera, his wife. She was a strong contrast to her husband. Whereas Samsonoff had a pale, melancholy face and sad, dreamy eyes under soft ringlets of hair falling well down over his forehead, his wife was the personification of robust health, with gaiety predominating in her brilliantly coloured face, her black, fiery eyes and sensual lips.

They took me through their quarters, composed of a small entrance hall and two rooms. The mud walls, ceiling and floor could have made the most cheerless impression, were it not for the saving adornment of woman's hand, which, with desire to guide it, can always make a cosy nest in a Chinese fang-tzu, a railway car, a ship's cabin or even a prison cell. The floor was covered with Chinese mats, which were also used as hangings for the walls and carried the decorations of artificial flowers, postal cards and photographs. Pieces of bright cloth covered the homemade chairs and benches, while gaudy bamboo and glass bead curtains, a contrastingly white tablecloth with a shining samovar and a Chinese vase filled with wildflowers combined to work the miracle of changing mud-plastered rooms into a home.

I spent a pleasant evening in these neat quarters of the Samsonoffs, chatting over many matters, local and distant. My evening's pleasure would have been much greater, had it not been disturbed by the impressions forced in upon me through my involuntary observations of the three people seated before me—three, because in the course of the evening we had been joined by the broad-shouldered Kazik.

As I told them something of my travels across Europe and Asia, as well as of some of the unusual characters I had met in my wanderings, I saw how the eyes of Kazik gleamed and how his lips tightened with something between determination and obstinacy, until finally he burst out:

"How fortunate you are! You travel and you are trained to know what is worth observing. You learn more and more and afterwards you use all this knowledge to improve your position in society; while we? We, the children of peasants and workmen, are obliged to gain unaided, as best we can, knowledge and respect among men. This is a social injustice!"

"How could you know and say that knowledge has come easily to me?" I asked, surprised and astonished at this outburst.

"I do not know this," he answered, "and I did not mean you personally; but I was speaking of the whole noble and educated class. I respect it but, at the same time, I envy and hate it. I will gain everything which this class, born to intelligence, possesses and I will sail on high seas. I will prove then what I know and how I can live. No one has yet seen such a life as I shall show them!"

My astonishment increased. Whence came to this son of the Urals this craving for knowledge and for the intelligence to enjoy life to the full?

"Do you seek real learning only to enable you to lead an extravagant, gay life?" I asked him, curious as to what he would reply.

"Yes," he answered without hesitation. "In my childhood I gazed into the palaces of our Ural industrial magnates, where I might not enter, and in those early days I took an oath that I should one day myself have a palace even more magnificent than any of theirs; for its owner and builder would be myself, a workman's son! But, with thinking, I came to realize that, as a labourer, I should never be rich and, even if I might by chance acquire wealth, I should not know how to profit by it. I consequently decided to study and become a man of the highest culture."

During this speech of Kazik I framed the thought that intellect alone would not be enough for the full enjoyment of life, about which this minor railway official in the forest at Udzimi dreamed at dreams. Besides knowledge one must possess in addition innate comprehension of the beautiful for which the greatest efforts and learning cannot compensate. But I did not give expression to the thought, because I did not wish in any way to rob this young man of his enthusiasm for work and progress toward perfection, and as I was of the opinion that, with time, wisdom and life itself might direct his dreams into other channels not so wholly egoistic.

While Kazik was pronouncing to us this confession, my attention was drawn to the fact that Madame Vera did not once take her eyes from his face during the whole wild outburst and that her cheeks seemed to flush more vividly than ever. Only from time to time she glanced at the expressionless—one might even say bored—face of her husband, and once a piteous smile stole into her expression, as her eyes darkened for a moment.

"Ah, you are drawing comparison," I mused.

"You dream of great things," commented the young woman, "but will you succeed?"

"Yes!" answered Kazik; and this short word stood out like a challenge.

"And then you will search for the most beautiful, the richest, the most magnificent woman in the world and will marry her?" asked the young bride with a playful smile.

"The most beautiful and the most magnificent—yes," was the reply, "but not the richest. I shall not need money."

Then I made a new observation. Kazik looked steadily for a moment at the face of the woman, with evident warmth in his gaze scanned her whole figure and turned dreamily away to some unimportant object in the corner of the room. Madame Vera nervously smoothed her hair and laughed, as it seemed to me, too loudly and too unnaturally.

I was conscious that Chance had again made me witness to the life struggle of individuals quite foreign to me and that I should behold minor, or even foolish, events that would bulk big in the lives of these three individuals and might entirely dominate their happiness and fortunes. These people, accidentally brought into my life by the community of business interests, might easily have remained unknown and of no particular interest to me, but Fate decided otherwise.

With the branch line in shape to transport the materials, we shortly began the construction of the new brick oven. The work went quickly and well, thanks to the skilful Chinese workmen whom Tung Ho Shan had sent me from Harbin.

Taking advantage of our proximity to the forests, I often went hunting. A young Cossack, Rikoff, who was a fine woodsman and a tireless walker, always accompanied me, and together we tramped a large part of the neighbouring country. In the course of these excursions we crossed the timber-covered divide and entered the valley of the Mutan, which flows northward to join the Sungari at Sansing. Along the river we found some villages of the Daour Manchus on the left bank and those of the Tungutzes on the right. We remarked the interesting fact that, though the Manchus were quite like the Chinese in appearance and, in fact, indistinguishable from them in the eyes of the ordinary observer, the Tungutzes had retained their markedly different racial appearance. These latter had long been a tribe of hunters and warriors, whose forbears in past centuries had caused the masters of Peking more than once to scan timorously the northern boundary, when rumours came of movements in the camps and villages of these Tungutzes tribes.

These inhabitants of the Mutan villages were big broad-shouldered men, quick and skilful of movement and proud, calm and distinctly friendly in bearing. The villages seemed poor and gave one more the impression of ruins than of habitable houses, and this in spite of the fact that within these houses whole fortunes were gathered in the form of sable, skunk, marten, ermine, fox and squirrel skins, which were the spoils of their hunts and were usually sold to the Chinese merchants and foreign buyers in Ninguta.

From this valley of the Mutan the fairly large mountain range of Kentei Alin extends eastward, and farther south another, called Loye Lin, takes off. From thirty to forty-five miles behind the Loye Lin lay the Korean frontier, along which the nearest town was the Chinese border station of Hunchun. This whole region between Loye Lin and the Korean frontier was a source of great difficulty to the Russian authorities during the war. It was a well-known fact that large gangs of Chinese hunghutzes, under the leadership of the famous bandit chieftain, Chang Tso-lin, refuged there; and it was only after the war that it became known that this hunghutze leader and his bands were in the pay of Japan to make scouting expeditions and to harass the Russian armies along their extended eastern flank.

In the valley of the Mutan, Rikoff and I found large kaoliang and barley fields. The banks of the river, as well as those of its tributary streams, were lined with a thick growth of bushes, from which many pheasants and a few grey partridges broke. We brought in so many of these birds that our Ho Lin table was always well provided with them; but the hunting itself was not really interesting, as the birds were so plentiful that the shooting was monotonously easy.

We were much more attracted by the Kentei Alin Mountains, along whose foothills we had seen herds of small deer and, on the stream banks, traces of larger ones. Twice Rikoff and I saddled our ponies for a trip into these mountains. Our first expedition was not very successful from the standpoint of hunting, as we did not even see traces of deer. While making a day of it shooting ducks, which paddled along the reeds and bushes along the shores of the mountain lakes, I also made two interesting observations. At various points I had to make my way through growths of hazel, and several times in these bushes heard sharp flappings of wings and the cries of flushing birds. Though the call seemed quite familiar to me, yet I could not name the bird. Finally, just as I was about to leave one of these hazel brakes, a dark brown bird with a long beak flushed within sight of me.

"Can it be a woodcock?" I asked myself incredulously, as I fired.

On picking up my bird, I found that it was, sure enough, an ordinary woodcock, the first one I had ever seen or heard of in Manchuria. Then I wandered around for some time in the brakes, but, as all the birds rose far away from me, I succeeded in bringing down only two more and had great trouble in finding these in the thick bushes and high grass.

The second observation was of quite a different character. The Kentei Alin Mountains are entirely wild, the best proof of which is the fact that the Chinese search here for ginseng, this mysterious medicinal plant growing in the virgin forest or in the wildest mountain glades, where the mighty prince of the jungle, the tiger, exercises his dominion and guard over the magic root. It was, therefore, naturally to be expected that few, if any, traces of human beings would be found. But traces were numerous—and what traces! We frequently found the spoors of iron-shod horses along the marshy banks of the mountain streams and on the sandy shoals, even, in one place, a fire that had just been left and was not quite burned out, near which, among cleanly gnawed bones and some unfinished hsioa mi-tzu gruel, I picked up a carbine cartridge with Japanese characters on it and an empty conserve tin with a Japanese label. What could it mean? Who was prowling here so near to our undertakings and whither was he bound? For a time these questions remained unanswered.

During a subsequent hunting expedition on the slopes of Kentei Alin, Rikoff and I stumbled upon a large herd of wild boar, numbering some fifteen head and plunging southward through the thicket at a tremendous pace. In answer to our leaden command to their front rank one of the animals went prone. As we were busy cutting hams from it, the Cossack suddenly raised his head and asked in a startled voice:

"Did you hear that? It was a bullet and not far away."

We stopped to listen and soon caught the sound of a far-away volley and the well-known whistle of bullets through the branches. One took a big splinter from the trunk of a broken tree hard by.

"They are aiming at us!" exclaimed Rikoff. "They must be the fellows with the iron-shod horses, but they certainly are not hunghutzes, for the hungkutzes never shoe their horses. Could it be, perhaps, one of our patrols?"

In the evening, when I told Kazik and Samsonoff of our experience, they were both strongly of the opinion that bands of hungkutzes were roaming about in the neighbouring forests. I decided to make a report to the General Staff and dismissed the matter for the moment from my mind.

Afterwards, that same evening, I went out to make a round of the nearest ovens and, on my return from this, passed back near the barracks of the labourers at Ho Lin and close to the quarters of my assistants. Behind these houses bushes stretched down to the bank of a small stream that ran through the village. As I was making my way along this, I heard a low conversation from the opposite bank and recognized the voice of Kazik. In a moment I made out his figure in the half-light and saw that he was gesticulating and talking to Madame Vera, who was seated on the bank. It was already rather dark, but I could discern the bent figure of the woman and could hear her low, piteous sobs. Kazik became silent and then Madame Samsonoff asked in a low, halting voice:

"You value your own happiness so much more than mine, however much I love you?"

Kazik remained silent for a moment, then answered gruffly:

"I also love you, but I must win for myself a free and broader life. I must, for otherwise I shall never know what calm and happiness are. Now I am but as your husband is; then I shall be something entirely different."

"And this is your last word?" the woman asked desperately.

"Yes!" rang the hard, severe voice of Kazik. "We must forget about our feelings until I have conquered life."

I was not mistaken then. Here between these three individuals were concealed the elements of a tragic drama, ready to break loose at any time and take full toll of their happiness. I felt that they were spiritually pure but that the inexorable hand of Fate had touched them and that the sign of misfortune was already on their foreheads.

On the following day, while I was inspecting the work in the forest, I came upon Samsonoff, looking pale and with eyes that were red and tired. In unwonted silence he mechanically showed me over the piles of wood and went away. Then, near the ovens, I met Kazik and found him serious and thoughtful. Speaking in a trembling voice, he gave evidence of great agitation. In response to my question as to what the matter was, he answered, after considerable hesitation and musing:

"I had a painful conversation with Samsonoff and was frank with him, only to regret it later. I told him the truth, in which there was nothing bad or wrong. Samsonoff will not believe what I said and suspects the worst." As he finished, he pulled off his cap and threw it on the ground like an impetuous boy.

"You talked about Madame Vera?" I asked.

He was too much roused and irritated to show astonishment over my question and answered without hesitancy:

"Yes, everyone can love or hate! The only thing is not to act basely, sinfully or treacherously. Nothing threatens Samsonoff. He has also but to work, to study and to struggle, and he will surely reach the great, broad highroad of life before ever I do. Then his wife will not leave him. But, as it is, he only curses and suspects things which are not and never will be, all of which is bad, sir, very bad!"

I realized fully that life had at present a foreboding aspect for my assistants, yet I seemed powerless to help them. Two days later I received a telegram, calling me to Harbin, where I spent about a week. On my return to Udzimi I was surprised and a little astonished to find that neither of my assistants came to meet me at the station. I proceeded directly to Ho Lin, where Kazik soon entered my car, pale and thin, with a feverish fire suffusing his eyes. Under his arm he had a portfolio full of papers and, in a dry official manner, began to make his report. He spoke without precision at times and exhibited much confusion, often rubbing his brow and licking his feverish lips.

As he opened his portfolio to show me some documents, I saw a Browning tucked away in it. Kazik laid it on a chair and began to hand me the papers. While I was glancing through these, the crash of a shot suddenly rent the air and a hot wave struck my face. I jumped, then became motionless with fright. Out of the momentary haze appeared the deadly pale face of Kazik, gazing at me with wide-open eyes full of despair. A mocking smile tightened his lips, baring his teeth, flecked with blood. But my attention was caught, not by this tragic mask, but by the breast of Kazik. He wore a red shirt, on which a dark stain was spreading. It was only a moment before the blood soaked through the material and began dropping to the floor. By the time I had recovered control of myself and had seated Kazik in an armchair, there was already a telltale pool saturating the rug. As I cut his shirt open with my desk shears, I found that the bullet had entered his left breast just above his heart and, discovering no exit, naturally inferred that it had lodged against his shoulderblade. The left arm was cold and inert. I quickly applied a first dressing and telephoned the station to get in touch immediately with the nearest hospital. Fortunately a Red Cross Hospital had been established just the previous week at the next station along the line. In a few hours an ambulance car arrived and took Kazik away. The next day an operation was performed and the bullet extracted, leaving Kazik to struggle through long weeks with threatening death. Tuberculosis developed in the perforated lung, forcing him to remain in the hospital until the autumn and then to leave only for a Government health station in Russia. When I saw him off at the Harbin station, he was in a sad state with his left hand quite inert, hanging cold and motionless at his side. Continual and piercing pain was his lot, clearly reflected in the thin and almost transparent face with its pale and parched lips. He was coughing and smiled in a rather shamed manner, as he said good-bye to me just before the train started.

"This is the end of my dreams!"

When I tried to calm and cheer him, he only shook his head and repeated:

"No, sir, this is the end! I am a cripple and there is only one help for me now, only one." He looked beyond me where he seemed to find the infinite, and added slowly: "Death, only death!"

He went away. For one short second I saw once more his pale face and then it disappeared. I never saw it again and I never shall, for I learned a year later that Kazik had died of consumption in a hospital, lonely and poor, because as a cripple he could find no work and had long ago used up his meagre savings.

Now, when on the great tapestry of memory the rather unusual character of Kazik stands out before me, I cannot really answer this question of how the accident in my car at Ho Lin actually occurred. While in hospital after the operation, Kazik averred that he struck the revolver by mistake, that it fell on the floor and went off. When I heard this, I recalled the pale, distorted face of Kazik before the accident and asked myself: "Was it not a suicide?" But Kazik took his secret with him to the grave.

It was not many weeks after the accident to Kazik that peace and happiness returned to the little home of the Samsonoffs. The young husband was gayer and more vivacious, while Madame Vera looked on him with more and more favour. They never spoke of Kazik; and once when I tried to introduce the subject, they turned immediately to another topic. I realized with poignant force the ruthless and heartless law of animal and human nature. When Kazik was strong, full of enthusiasm for life, and dangerous, he was loved or hated: when the merciless bullet had robbed his body of its life-blood and strength, he was put out of the heart and of the thoughts as a spoiled and broken thing, of no use to anybody.

"Poor Kazik," I often thought, "where are your proud, bold plans and dreams? I wonder, if before your death, cold despair did not possess your stubborn soul?"

I was really rather glad when I heard of the death of this man, crippled and beyond hope of recovery. Death ended all his trials, his burdened life and his despair, and possibly also the persisting longing for her, who so quickly and easily banished him from her memory.

In the course of a few weeks Samsonoff resigned and returned to Harbin with his wife, who was tired of the jungle, where my ovens struggled with the virgin forest and devoured the bodies of the wood giants just as an extraneous accident devoured the life of Kazik. The human heart can be hard, indifferent and callous; and this is perhaps one unconsciously influencing reason why I do not like big human masses. I found new assistants and our automaton continued to devour.