What is Truth? by Maurice Baring

To E. I. Huber

Sitting opposite me in the second-class carriage of the express train which was crawling at a leisurely pace from Moscow to the south was a little girl who looked as if she were about twelve years old, with her mother. The mother was a large fair-haired person, with a good-natured expression. They had a dog with them, and the little girl, whose whole face twitched every now and then from St. Vitus' dance, got out at nearly every station to buy food for the dog. On the same side of the carriage, in the opposite corner, another lady (thin, fair, and wearing a pince-nez) was reading the newspaper. She and the mother of the child soon made friends over the dog. That is to say, the dog made friends with the strange lady and was reproved by its mistress, and the strange lady said: "Please don't scold him. He is not in the least in my way, and I like dogs." They then began to talk.

The large lady was going to the country. She and her daughter had been ordered to go there by the doctor. She had spent six weeks in Moscow under medical treatment, and they had now been told to finish this cure with a thorough rest in the country air. The thin lady asked her the name of her doctor, and before ascertaining what was the disease in question, recommended another doctor who had cured a friend of hers, almost as though by miracle, of heart disease. The large lady seemed interested and wrote down the direction of the marvellous physician. She was herself suffering, she said, from a nervous illness, and her daughter had St. Vitus' dance. They were so far quite satisfied with their doctor. They talked for some time exclusively about medical matters, comparing notes about doctors, diseases, and remedies. The thin lady said she had been cured of all her ills by aspirin and cinnamon.

In the course of the conversation the stout lady mentioned her husband, who, it turned out, was the head of the gendarmerie in a town in Siberia, not far from Irkutsk. This seemed to interest the thin lady immensely. She at once asked what were his political views, and what she herself thought about politics.

The large lady seemed to be reluctant to talk politics and evaded the questions for some time, but after much desultory conversation, which always came back to the same point, she said:—

"My husband is a Conservative; they call him a 'Black Hundred,' but it's most unfair and untrue, because he is a very good man and very just. He has his own opinions and he is sincere. He does not believe in the revolution or in the revolutionaries. He took the oath to serve the Emperor when everything went quietly and well, and now, although I have often begged him to leave the Service, he says it would be very wrong to leave just because it is dangerous. 'I have taken the oath,' he says, 'and I must keep it.'"

Here she stopped, but after some further questions on the part of the thin lady, she said: "I never had time or leisure to think of these questions. I was married when I was sixteen. I have had eight children, and they all died one after the other except this one, who was the eldest. I used to see political exiles and prisoners, and I used to feel sympathy for them. I used to hear about people being sent here and there, and sometimes I used to go down on my knees to my husband to do what he could for them, but I never thought about there being any particular idea at the back of all this." Then after a short pause she added: "It first dawned on me at Moscow. It was after the big strike, and I was on my way home. I had been staying with some friends in the country, and I happened by chance to see the funeral of that man Bauman, the doctor, who was killed. I was very much impressed when I saw that huge procession go past, all the men singing the funeral march, and I understood that Bauman himself had nothing to do with it. Who cared about Bauman? But I understood that he was a symbol. I saw that there must be a big idea which moves all these people to give up everything, to go to prison, to kill, and be killed. I understood this for the first time at that funeral. I cried when the crowd went past. I understood there was a big idea, a great cause behind it all. Then I went home.

"There were disorders in Siberia: you know in Siberia we are much freer than you are. There is only one society. The officials, the political people, revolutionaries, exiles, everybody, in fact, all meet constantly. I used to go to political meetings, and to see and talk with the Liberal and revolutionary leaders. Then I began to be disappointed because what had always struck me as unjust was that one man, just because he happened to be, say, Ivan Pavlovitch, should be able to rule over another man who happened to be, say, Ivan Ivanovitch. And now that these Republics were being made, it seemed that the same thing was beginning all over again—that all the places of authority were being seized and dealt out amongst another lot of people who were behaving exactly like those who had authority before. The arbitrary authority was there just the same, only it had changed hands, and this puzzled me very much, and I began to ask myself, 'Where is the truth?'"

"What did your husband think?" asked the thin lady.

"My husband did not like to talk about these things," she answered. "He says, 'I am in the Service, and I have to serve. It is not my business to have opinions.'"

"But all those Republics didn't last very long," rejoined the thin lady.

"No," continued the other; "we never had a Republic, and after a time they arrested the chief agitator, who was the soul of the revolutionary movement in our town, a wonderful orator. I had heard him speak several times and been carried away. When he was arrested I saw him taken to prison, and he said 'Good-bye' to the people, and bowed to them in the street in such an exaggerated theatrical way that I was astonished and felt uncomfortable. Here, I thought, is a man who can sacrifice himself for an idea, and who seemed to be thoroughly sincere, and yet he behaves theatrically and poses as if he were not sincere. I felt more puzzled than ever, and I asked my husband to let me go and see him in prison. I thought that perhaps after talking to him I could solve the riddle, and find out once for all who was right and who was wrong. My husband let me go, and I was admitted into his cell.

"'You know who I am,' I said, 'since I am here, and I am admitted inside these locked doors?' He nodded. Then I asked him whether I could be of any use to him. He said that he had all that he wanted; and like this the ice was broken, and I asked him presently if he believed in the whole movement. He said that until the 17th of October, when the Manifesto had been issued, he had believed with all his soul in it; but the events of the last months had caused him to change his mind. He now thought that the work of his party, and, in fact, the whole movement, which had been going on for over fifty years, had really been in vain. 'We shall have,' he said, 'to begin again from the very beginning, because the Russian people are not ready for us yet, and probably another fifty years will have to go by before they are ready.'

"I left him very much perplexed. He was set free not long afterwards, in virtue of some manifesto, and because there had been no disorders in our town and he had not been the cause of any bloodshed. Soon after he came out of prison my husband met him, and he said to my husband: 'I suppose you will not shake hands with me?' And my husband replied: 'Because our views are different there is no reason why both of us should not be honest men,' and he shook hands with him."

The conversation now became a discussion about the various ideals of various people and parties holding different political views. The large lady kept on expressing the puzzled state of mind in which she was.

The whole conversation, of which I have given a very condensed report, was spread over a long time, and often interrupted. Later they reached the subject of political assassination, and the large lady said:—

"About two months after I came home that year, one day when I was out driving with my daughter in a sledge the revolutionaries fired six shots at us from revolvers. We were not hit, but one bullet went through the coachman's cap. Ever since then I have had nervous fits and my daughter has had St. Vitus' dance. We have to go to Moscow every year to be treated. And it is so difficult. I don't know how to manage. When I am at home I feel as if I ought to go, and when I am away I never have a moment's peace, because I cannot help thinking the whole time that my husband is in danger. A few weeks after they shot at us I met some of the revolutionary party at a meeting, and I asked them why they had shot at myself and my daughter. I could have understood it if they had shot at my husband. But why at us? He said: 'When the wood is cut down, the chips fly about.'[*] And now I don't know what to think about it all.

     [*] A Russian proverb.

"Sometimes I think it is all a mistake, and I feel that the revolutionaries are posing and playing a part, and that so soon as they get the upper hand they will be as bad as what we have now; and then I say to myself, all the same they are acting in a cause, and it is a great cause, and they are working for liberty and for the people. And, then, would the people be better off if they had their way? The more I think of it the more puzzled I am. Who is right? Is my husband right? Are they right? Is it a great cause? How can they be wrong if they are imprisoned and killed for what they believe? Where is the truth, and what is truth?"