The Human Touch

I have a friend in Russia. We have never met but we are nevertheless well disposed to each other, perhaps just because we have never met. It is usually a pretty tough friendship that can survive many meetings, unless well spaced out. But we — my Russian friend and I — are friends by correspondence and it never takes less than a month to transmit an “How are you?” to the mercies of the international post and receive a reply. And the normal difficulties of correspondence are further complicated by the necessity of translating the letters, mine before they’re sent off and his, before I can understand their contents. So that we usually discuss essential matters—and in brief.

This Russian friend lives in Leningrad. He is a wood engraver by trade, by craft and by art. What he does is to cut pictures, so to speak, into blocks of wood with certain knife-like tools, but those blocks, even after he’s cut into them, have no particular existence in art until he has inked them and pulled proofs from the inked blocks. Each sheet of paper thus treated is called a print, or proof, and the average person can’t tell how good an artist’s blocks are until they have been “proved,” so to speak. In other words, a woodblock artist needs paper no less than wood and the quality of paper is only slightly less important than the quality of wood into which the pictures are cut.

THE GREAT JOURNEY

Most woodblock artists—so far as I know—prefer Japanese rice paper. At least my Russian friend does and, blandly, I undertook the commission of sending from New York to Leningrad a small package of Japanese paper cut into approximately six by ten inch sizes. I purchased at the wholesale rate $2.38 worth of paper and had it packed up, sealed, tagged, addressed. It was almost a morning’s work preparing that small package in a manner which would make it acceptable to the postal authorities, and saw it off on its four thousand mile journey with something of the anxiety with which an ancient shipper must have sent off a cargo on the uncertain high seas.

A month passed and a letter arrived which yielded the astonishing information that when the package containing $2.38 worth of Japanese paper arrived in Leningrad the person to whom it was addressed was summoned to the post office, or wherever such things are done in Leningrad, and asked to hand over, as customs duty, the sum of one hundred and twenty rubles which, according to the legal exchange, comes to more than twenty-five times the price of the paper itself.

My friend made every legitimate effort to acquire his little package duty free, but for very good Soviet reasons, reasons of state, or of economic policy, or pique or revenge, or whatever they may be, his petition was denied, and the package was made to retrace every step in its four-thousand-mile journey, back to its source, namely, myself.

Now I have in my possession, after having paid the grand sum of seventy-four cents for the return trip from Russia, a packet of Japanese paper, particularly suitable for taking impressions from woodblocks. Anyone want it? What am I bid?

MISS TUFVERSON AND I

Miss Agnes Tufverson, whose strange and still unsolved disappearance has been agitating the police of New York and Vienna, was a fellow-tenant in the apartment house in which I live. Her apartment was two floors below and we must have gone up, or down, together at some time in the passenger elevator. We meant nothing to each other and I have not, much as I regret it, the slightest recollection of her. It is, after all, the human thing to want to say that one knew, or was acquainted with, people who are touched by tragedy, or romance, or good fortune.

The names of Miss Tufverson and Captain Poderjay had been on the front pages for more than a week before I became aware of the fact that she had been a fellow-tenant. I had seen quite a number of policemen about the house, but attached no importance to their presence, and of course I did not recognize the plainclothesmen who came and went, for how is a fellow to know that a man in ordinary clothes is really a policeman in disguise?

I became aware of Miss Tufverson’s fellow-tenancy one Sunday morning when the elevator man asked me: “Did you see my name in the paper today?” I answered I had not, and why was it in the paper? “They called me Miss Tufverson’s favorite elevator operator.” “Is that so?” I said and thought no more about it. But after that I followed the Tufverson case with more interest and kept in touch with the confusing ramifications.

ENTERPRISE

One afternoon, returning home, I found an old newspaper acquaintance downstairs. For a moment I thought that he had recently moved in but it appeared he had been sent out on the Tufverson case and could I give him any information? I couldn’t, and two days later I heard of another newspaper man, a fellow-tenant this one, who had attempted to break into the Tufverson apartment with a pass-key, but had failed.

But although my connection with the Tufverson case was tenuous enough to be non-existent, I did not suspect that I was going to be put on the spot, so to speak, that my morale was to be undermined.

It started one morning when I was going down the elevator when the operator lurched in my direction with an accusing finger and cried: “Where’s the body?” I was calm and at ease that morning and I laughed good-humoredly without starting, for elevator operators will be elevator operators. But the second time that accusing finger and the question “Where’s the body?” were suddenly launched at me, I was a little discomfited, and I rather wished the operator would play some other game. But the third and fourth time the accusing question was hurled at me, I started in fright, to all intents like a guilty person. And I know very well if our operator continues his third-degree tactics I’ll have to tell all I know.

There is no particular moral in this, except that the operator’s innocent fun and my own reactions to his play give me a sympathetic notion of how a third degree tactician can succeed in wearing down the resistance even of an innocent persons into a confession of guilt. I shall really have to say, in all seriousness, next time I’m surprised, “I really don’t know.”

NEXT STORY