Children of Revolution
WHEN Shubina lay ill for months in the hospital at Kvalinsk, and twelve visiting doctors from Saratov examined her and found that she had pneumonia and bronchitis, and that almost everything else inside her was out of order, I could have told them what ailed her. Shubina was too unselfish; she had a bad case of devotion to other people's welfare. And since that is a very rare disease, none of the doctors recognized it.
Shubina was not used to attracting so much attention. A quiet, retiring girl, she was used only to working and working for everybody without notice. She had done it all her life, ever since she can remember. She tells me with a smile how important she felt when the twelve doctors put her in the sunlight and used magnifying glasses on her to see what was the matter. She herself thinks the matter was that all her body had been frozen. But the real trouble began long before that.
When the pioneer group that took Alexeivka was battling with the coming winter, cooking and eating from one large pail for twenty boys and girls, ploughing, repairing windows, cleaning, while October winds changed into the storms of November and the blizzards of December--Shubina was one of the most energetic, healthiest girls. Nothing was too hard for her. She washed doors with water from the frozen river; she mended the boys clothes by candlelight; she cooked in the single pail in which also water was brought; and she still managed to keep enough vitality to take the only woman's part in the drama which they got up to make money.
The colony sent her as delegate to the party meetings in Alexeivka. And Shubina was very proud of the colony and always stood up for it. Once in the meetings she heard them blaming the colony and saying how badly they kept order, and how they had meat now, and potatoes and bread and even oil and honey--everything you could ask, but the girls were too stupid to cook it.
The other delegates from the colony sat still and hung their heads, for they did not dare talk back to grown-up people. But Shubina wouldn't stand it. She got right up in the meeting. "How can we cook?" she said, "when we have no dishes. You peasants have only three or four in your families to cook for, and yet you have every one of you a couple of iron pots. But we have nearly thirty to cook for, and we have just one iron pail. We get water in it, and we milk the cow in it, and we cook the soup in it, and wash the dishes in it. We have to drink up all the milk, or else leave it in the soup. And we have to eat all the soup, or else throw it out before we can wash the dishes. And we cannot have any water to drink till after the dishwater is thrown out. Can any of your wives do good cooking like that?"
After that nobody talked again against the colony in the meetings, but Shubina went to the leader of the colony and said: "We won't cook any more without pots, for they all make fun of us for living like pigs." So he sold some wheat and bought two iron pots and a pan. Then sheet-iron came from town, and the boys made pails and a water-tank in their blacksmith shop. And life began to get better in the colony, partly because Shubina fought for it.
Shubina was seventeen years old, but she was just learning to read and write. She had never had a chance before. And now, the Young Communists of the colony decided to give a play and raise money for paper and pencils. Shubina took the part of a girl in "Springtime Without Sun," a play of student life before the Revolution. She was to be a priest's daughter who secretly helped the revolutionists.
The play was a great success. The young actors traveled to the Cherumshan Houses to perform. They also gave it in the village of Alexeivka, and won renown, so that the peasant girls no longer disdained to go out walking with the ragged boys of the colony. For these boys were now "artists" and could stalk proudly through the village market and return the nods of the people who had clapped them in the play. Then the actors decided to give a show in the village of Selidba.
A blizzard came up from the Volga on the cold day in late January when they set forth. It grew cold, cold, colder; the horses staggered through the snow. Shubina had no coat of her own, but she borrowed a thin cotton one from one of the girls. She had no stockings and only a pair of broken sandals on her feet. She covered herself as well as she could with straw. All the children huddled together under the straw, for none of them was any too warmly clad. Four hours they traveled thus to the village of Selidba, and when they arrived, every boy had frost-bitten fingers or toes or ears. But Shubina's arms and legs and face were black with frost; all the last part of the way they had to pound her to keep her from falling into the frozen sleep of death.
When they reached the village school house in Selidba, they hauled Shubina out of the wagon and pounded her some more, till the blood came back aching and painful into her arms and legs. Then she went on the stage and played the part of the student girl who helped the Revolution. The audience of peasants applauded loudly, but it was very poor in money. When they took up the collection there was just 70 cents received for the show.
Shubina spent the night on the stove in a peasant hut and traveled back next day. The blizzard was over; the sun shone on the snow; and although she shivered much in her thin cotton coat and her head was aching, she did not turn black again. But as soon as she reached Alexeivka there came a call from the stables. Odintsof was going to Volsk with horses; did Shubina want to go?
A pillow and two dresses were in Volsk belonging to Shubina; there was also three dollars due her from the time when she worked as a nurse-girl. And the papers about her birth and family were in Volsk, and Shubina needed them. She sprang into the other sleigh and set off with Odintsof.
All afternoon till long after sundown they traveled the fifty miles to Volsk over the snow, while Shubina crouched in the straw in her cotton coat and broken sandals. She got the three dollars and the dresses and pillow and the papers about her birth, and came back next day through the cold, windy weather. By this time her head was hot and aching and her body was shivering cold.
Next morning the carpenter boys came to say that the Big House was at last repaired. All the windows were made and put in, and the walls were whitewashed. But the floors were piled with pieces of plaster and paint and straw and wood. It must be cleaned and scrubbed and that was the work of the girls. And all of the girls refused. For there was no heat in the Big House, which had stood all winter in the cold winds from the Volga. Snowdrifts lay even in the rooms. The water for washing came from holes in the ice. And the girls were barefoot, with three pair of shoes between them.
"We will not clean the Big House until you heat it," they said. And everyone knew that there was not enough wood for heating.
Then Shubina spoke up, arising from the bed where she had lain down with an aching head. "Come on, girls," she cried. She took up a pail of water in which pieces of ice were floating, and a cloth that was frozen stiff, and she put on her leaky sandals and started across the half mile of snow to the Big House. The other girls, ashamed to lag behind, followed her, shivering.
All day long Shubina washed floors and windows in the Big House. Her sandals were laid aside, as they were no protection against the wet, and her bare feet were soaked again and again with the icy water on the floors. Her head grew hotter and hotter and her eyes glazed till she could hardly see. At last she staggered and nearly fell downstairs. Then the girls said: "Go home, Shubina."
Shubina started home across the snow. But on the way she remembered that she was cow-girl, and the cows had not been milked. So she took the pail and went to the cold barn and milked the cows. She fed the calves and the three little pigs. She just managed to reach the house after that and fell unconscious on her bed. They sent at once for the doctor and he came that evening. Shubina already was raving in delirium with a temperature of 104 degrees.
The doctor said she had pneumonia and bronchitis, and that there seemed to be something wrong with her heart and her stomach. None of her internal organs appeared to be working. She was too sick to be taken away to the big hospital in Kvalinsk, and there was no room in the little hospital of Alexeivka, so Shubina lay in the little room with the six other girls. She grew thinner and thinner for it seemed there was nothing she could eat. Shubina says that all her insides had been frozen.
Shubina lay in the little room while the spring thaw warmed the air, and the snow ran off the land through little ravines to the ice of the river, till it, too, melted and moved sluggishly downwards and the great Volga was free again. She lay while the season of mud came and went and the ploughing began. Then at last the roads were firm and the air was warm, and they moved her to the big hospital in Kvalinsk just in time for the big commission of doctors to see when they came up the river from Saratov inspecting the hospitals of the province.
The doctors put her in the sun and looked at her through glasses. They made tests of blood. They felt her all over. Then they said that everything inside of Shubina was out of order and that probably she would die. Perhaps she might live if she had only very soft eggs to eat. But there were no eggs in the colony, and the hospital had no extra money for feeding people, so Shubina lay without eggs or anything else but boiled water: Till at last the American Miss Craves came and bought eggs for Shubina. "I think without her I should have died," says Shubina now.
It was blazing midsummer when Shubina came back to the colony. Work was in full swing in the fields of Alexeivka, but the days were heavy and stifling, and in the long, white evenings clouds of mosquitoes arose from the sloughs near the Volga and came through the unscreened windows. If you closed the windows at night, you fainted from the closeness of the air; if you opened them you tossed all night fighting mosquitoes. Malaria arose and spread with the clouds of mosquitoes along the Volga shores. Into such a place came Shubina, weak from illness, with orders to rest completely for six months and eat only white bread and eggs, and milk.
Neither white bread nor eggs were in the colony. Shubina had some milk and heavy black bread of rye which turned her stomach and threw her again often on the bed with fever. Malaria took her, and she shook with chills and burned with heat. But there was plenty of quinine from Moscow, and Shubina took it, except sometimes when the druggist was too busy to mix the doses and then for a day or two everyone would be sick again.
And still, between hours of lying on her bed, Shubina kept on working. The doctor scolded her and threatened her with death. Yeremeef, who scolded almost everyone else for being too lazy, would almost curse Shubina back to her bed when she tried to work at the thresher. But Shubina couldn't stand it to sit idle when others were working.
She too, like Stesha and Morosof, thought always about order in the colony. There was so much to be done, and sometimes the others refused to do it. "It is not our turn to work," they would say. But always, when Shubina saw things that needed doing, she did them. And there was too much for one sick girl to stand.
They gave her the job of cow-girl, for that was supposed to be easy. She rose at four, milked the three cows, fed the calves and pigs, strained the milk and took it to the kitchen. Then she was through till evening. Everyone wanted Shubina for cow-girl because she always did things on time. Besides, some of the other girls, when they were cow-girl, would drink up more than their share of milk. But Shubina, even when she could eat no other food, never took more than her share.
There came a terrible Sunday when two of the girls in the kitchen fell ill with malaria lust at lunch time and had to be helped home to bed. Two others took their places, but by Monday noon these also were in bed with fever. There was only one girl left to work in the kitchen. But two girls who were perfectly well sat idly in their rooms, eating tomatoes which they had stolen from the colony's vines. "It is not our turn to work in the Kitchen," they said. "We worked last week." It wasn't Shubina's turn either, but that made no difference. "I cannot leave Vera alone," she said, and she added the kitchen job to the job of cow-girl.
One evening late, when supper and milking were over, Shubina told me the tale of her life and how she came to the colony, and what she wanted to do in the future. For sixteen years she had wandered from place to place, uncared for, or cared for only by strangers.
"My mother died when I was two years old," she told me, "and my father was very poor, a peasant not far from Volsk. So he gave me away to a boat captain who worked on the Volga and who had no children of his own. I half remember that it was very nice with them on the Volga steamboat; they loved me and were kind. But they died when I was six, and the first thing I really remember was the big funeral they had in Saratov.
"Then I lived with my mother's mother, but she also was poor and pave me away to be nurse-girl. These people were also kind; they treated me like a daughter and gave me not only food but clothes. Once when`I was living with them I saw my father; he went by in a cart and they said: 'That is your father.' But already he was past, and he did not know me. I did not try to see him again. For he gave me away when I was little; he is no more to me now than any stranger.
"For many years I worked as nurse girl and servant girl. The first kind people went away to Nijni and did not take me with them. Sometimes my masters were kind and gave me dresses; sometimes they only gave me food. Then I cut up my mother's dresses and made them over; she was a peasant and her dresses were of strong hand-woven linen. They lasted a long time; but now they are all gone. I had also a beautiful silk shawl, as large as a tablecloth; this my mother got one Christmas when she worked for Lord Vorontsef. I sold it for six roubles and bought cotton goods to make a coat.
"When the Revolution came, I was working for a rich peasant. They had 200 acres of land and thirteen cows, and they ate all kinds of things in their dining-room. But to me they gave only a little saucer of thin cabbage soup with black bread. They were the worst people I ever worked for; I was always hungry with them. The workers who served them were also hungry. Once the old man's wife was sorry for the workers and took them some milk to put in their soup. But the old man came back from the fields and caught her at it, and he went into a rage and threw the soup plates in her face.
"I was just eleven years old, and I had to haul water from the well. The well was deep and the bucket was heavy and it often pulled me off my feet. I was afraid of the well; once I nearly fell in it when the bucket pulled me. When I think of how I lived in those old days, I begin to cry. I cannot stand it. In the colony now there is much disorder because of the lazy ones. But at least we are all equal and we have a chance to learn.
"From the time of the Revolution I began to want to learn. I could not read and write, but that was the way with all servant girls. None of us thought of learning to read before the Revolution. But now the czar was gone and the stingy old peasant I worked for said that was very bad. But the Communists said it was good, and that we must finish with all oppressors. And I thought: I also am one of the oppressed ones and I am tired of it. I will join the Young Communists and learn to read and write and not be oppressed any longer.
"So from the very beginning I tried to join the Comsomol in Volsk. There was a girl I knew who belonged; she had studied in a regular school. She gave me a book and began to teach me to read. But the old man and his wife forbade me to go; they hated the Comsomol. Then I went to visit friends, and sneaked off afterwards to the meeting. This also they discovered and began to reproach me. So I went to bed early, and then climbed out the window and went to the Comsomol. But their little boy found reading-books in my room and told his mother; and after that they fired me out of their house.
"I worked in so many places that I could not go to the meetings often. So I never could be a real member, but still they let me work for them. They put me on committees for collecting money for homeless children. I couldn't yet read, so I could not do much work for the Comsosol. But everything I could I did. And they gave me books and I went on learning to read.
"But I grew tired of working in different places. I wanted to be in one place where I could learn. So I went to a children's home and they sent me here. It is better here than anywhere else I have been. They have let me join the Comsomol and they sent me as a delegate to the Village Party Meeting. They let me act in the plays. And if only we have order this winter, and a school and a sewing-shop, then at last I shall learn a trade and begin to be something.
"But if not--if there isn't any wood, and the school doesn't open, and we have to study in bed as we did last winter; if the sewing machines get smashed and the tailor is too lazy to mend them; and the lamps get broken and no one can make order--then I can't live through another winter. I think I shall die here.
"If everyone works hard, we can make here a good life. But some do not work and do not care. And it is hard to work when you have no shoes; it is hard to wash clothes when there is not enough soap. Even when there is enough food, some of the girls spoil it because they don't know how. It is hard to make order in the kitchen, when the girls fall sick while getting lunch. But yet, somehow, this must be done, if we are to live at all; and still more, if we are to learn. And if we are to make something in the world, better than the old life that is gone."