By the Kindness of Strangers
This article continues the story about the author's grandfather, a so-called religious `nonconformist,' in the last years of czarist Russia. The series has followed the arrest of Ivan Bodganovich Jacques on religious grounds, his struggle to survive the Russian penal system, and now, his route to freedom.
FROST fringed the camel-hair cap my grandfather pulled about his face as he walked briskly on the road leading south from Harbin. It was December 1915, and snow began to fall.
Dressed as a Manchurian, my grandfather, Ivan Bogdanovich Jacques, was not arrested as he exited the Russian-controlled city. Neither was he challenged by a group of Russian soldiers approaching him on the road after he had stepped into a field to avoid contact with them.
That he could actually walk in winter across Manchuria to China proper, following the Russian railway yet avoiding the soldiers who guarded the bridges and road crossings, had seemed improbable to fellow church members in Harbin. Still, my grandfather felt confident of his course, although he asked his hosts to write to his parents if they did not hear from him after two weeks. If no word came, they could assume he had been captured.
As he entered the first village beyond Harbin, however, the snow blew so thick Ivan Bogdanovich could scarcely see the road. Turning his face sideways to avoid the piercing wind, he saw a Manchurian coming up behind him.
Several times in his imprisonment, exile, and escape - when he needed it most - strangers had come to my grandfather's rescue. Now, in blinding snow, and unsure of his way, Ivan Bogdanovich was guided by this Asiatic wayfarer. He would lead my grandfather for two days to Shwang-chang-puo. Turning from the road, the Manchurian led him in a shortcut to the next village. Chilled and hungry, they entered an inn marked by bright paper ornaments. There they ate peanuts and bean paste, then resumed their journey.
Twilight came, and in the snowstorm they lost the road. But to stop meant freezing, and they pressed on, regained the road, then skirted Russian barracks, passing unmolested within feet of a soldier.
Late in the evening, unable to make out their way, they followed an ox-drawn cart into the courtyard of a village inn. Sitting crosslegged with the Manchurians, my grandfather ate noodles with chopsticks, a first for him. A villager asked if he was a Russian soldier. A few days earlier, several deserters had been arrested. His guide requested blankets, and they slept for a few hours on the clay floor.
At 3 a.m., my grandfather awoke from the cold and decided to continue. The Manchurian also rose, indicating he would accompany him. They paid the innkeeper and stepped outside into bright moonlight, although the wind was bitter. Soon, to keep from freezing, they quickened their pace into a run. The wind blew through my grandfather's clothes ``as if they were gauze,'' he would later write. Tears froze on his face.
With daylight they again stopped at an inn for rest and warmth, then resumed their journey. Fortunately, his volunteer guide knew a few words of Russian. He was also able to teach Ivan Bogdanovich a few words of Manchu.
Late in the afternoon they arrived in the walled city of Shwang-chung-puo, the Manchurian's destination. Finding the north gate, they entered the city and slipped into a small eating booth. But the sight of several Russians made my grandfather uneasy, and he determined to walk to the next village. Again, his guide declared he would accompany him, ``although his only motive, so far as I could learn,'' wrote my grandfather, ``was the purely unselfish one of looking after my welfare.''
Fugitive and guide proceeded toward the south gate. But as they were passing a compound just before the village wall, the Manchurian grabbed my grandfather's arm, pointed to a gateway, then pulled him into the courtyard. He had identified a Protestant mission. Ivan Bogdanovich was warmly received by the Christian Manuchurians who operated the mission. Satisfied that my grandfather was now in safe hands, his guide left him. For four days Ivan Bogdanovich rested at the home of one of the mission workers.
On the fifth day his host accompanied him 12 miles to the next village. But from here on, my grandfather traveled alone. Twice he broke his walking stick on dogs that attacked him outside the villages. Sometimes, struggling through bamboo thickets or across frozen swamps, he lost his way, and had to climb a knoll or a hilltop to regain his direction.
The guarded railway bridges posed the greatest danger. As winter set in, however, the ice on the rivers thickened, and several times Ivan Bogdanovich climbed down steep banks to cross undetected on the ice.
For days he continued, starting each day before dawn, stopping briefly at smoke-filled inns for warmth and food. Often other guests would crowd about him with questions. When the kind woman in Harbin had placed the Chinese New Testament in his pack, he had at first objected because he couldn't read Chinese, and it was added weight. Now the New Testament brought rest. He found that the guests in the inns enjoyed hearing the New Testament read aloud. He would hand it to one of the guests, then find a place to sleep, using his shoes for a pillow.
Increasingly, the damage to his feet slowed his progress. Wrapping them in cloths, he attempted to alleviate the bruising and lacerations they suffered. From a pace of 40 to 50 miles a day, he now struggled to complete 15 to 20 miles.
He found brief rest, warmth, and ``the most appetizing meal I had eaten in Manchuria'' in a Roman Catholic mission, to which he was directed by an inn owner.
Warned of a Russian military outpost ahead, he traveled one day with a caravan of Manchurians taking their produce to market. Blending in with the farmers, he entered the city, helped with their horses, and slept in a large communal lodging.
THE Russian railway ended in Kwanchengtze, and the Japanese railway began a few miles further in Changchun. Obsessed with getting beyond the last Russian military post, Ivan Bogdanovich pressed on. About noon the winding road he followed crossed the railway near a Russian barracks. Because of the steep hills beside the road, my grandfather could see no other course. When he reached the crossing, a Russian officer and a civilian halted him and asked where he was going.
In forced calmness, my grandfather remained silent. The officer then told the civilian, who functioned as an interpreter, to ask the question in German. Again, silence. Then he repeated the question in English. Since he was a boy, Ivan Bogdanovich had developed his gift for languages. Intrigued by English, he had purchased a dictionary and laboriously copied down words. Later he had studied English in school. Now he answered the interpreter in English, stating he was an evangelist en route to the next mission. ``This was all true,'' he later wrote, ``although it was not the whole truth.''
Perhaps because the interpreter himself spoke English poorly, he was hesitant to press further. After a moment's hesitation, the officer bid my grandfather continue without even asking to see his passport.
Walking was now torturous. Yet, heartened by what he again saw as providential deliverance, Ivan Bogdanovich pushed on into the evening. He ignored an innkeeper who called to him that the sun was setting and walked on. That night he lost the road, but followed the direction of the stars. After midnight he passed without incidence the last Russian station in Kwanchengtze. At daybreak he arrived in Changchun.
He had been walking continuously for 30 hours, and he was sick from the pain in his feet. In desperation he considered boarding a Japanese train. But Japan, a former enemy, was now Russia's ally, and my grandfather knew that, with no passport, he would certainly be turned over to the Russian military.
As he walked further into the city, an English sign caught his eye. It read: ``British and Foreign Bible Society.'' Inside the building he found an old Chinese man who later led him to an English mission on the edge of Changchun. Arriving at dinner time, he was welcomed, then taken directly to the dining room. Here he was introduced to a guest, an American named Morgan Palmer.
An official in the government-owned salt business in China, Palmer - my grandfather would later learn - had rescued many missionaries during the Boxer Rebellion. Now, after listening to my grandfather's story, he urged him to return immediately with him to his home.
By horseback they rode several miles into the country. Stopping at a gate, they were met by two guards. Palmer assured Ivan Bogdanovich that these were no Black Angels, remembering my grandfather's description of the Russian prison guards, and they entered the compound.
Inside the old Manchurian house, his host directed his servant to prepare a bath for my grandfather. Then he laid out for him a set of his own clothes. After supper, Palmer led the exhausted fugitive to his own room, and despite my grandfather's protests, insisted that he take Palmer's bed.
Ivan Bogdanovich was deeply moved by Palmer's kindness and the comforts around him. Later he would write that he felt like Sojourner Truth, who, freed from slavery, could not imagine that the luxurious bed in the room was for her, and crawled underneath it.
The next day Palmer told him he must stay as long as he needed to recover and to plan the next course of his journey. His host would help in any way he could. My grandfather was still in dangerous territory, and still a thousand miles from Shanghai. Yet for the first time in months, he felt safe. Evenings he enjoyed long talks with Palmer, home from his government work. And during the several days Palmer was away on business, he indulged himself in his favorite recreation, riding the horse his host had put at his disposal, although for safety he rode only at night, accompanied by Palmer's servant.
What thoughts of his home and his future must have streamed through his mind as he rode out under the cold stars? I can see him, his sore feet loose in the stirrups, his body gliding forward with the horse in its canter, his face peaceful in reverie - riding like a Cossack, for joy. To be continued. Previous articles in this series ran June 13, Sept. 12, Sept. 26, Oct. 10, and Oct. 24.