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Kirill Finkelshteyn
In a wrong body. The secret of the life of Nicolai de Raylan.
Moscow: IDRIS publisher.  2021; 416 p. 16+


   Below are excerpts from the diary of Nicolai de Rylan, which tells about a fateful meeting with the Flemish playwright and businessman Frans Gittens in Antwerp, on the way to America.

    I continue to record my memories while they are so fresh, as if everything happened just yesterday.   From the story of escape from Russia and sailing to Antwerp I am turning to the description of a trip to America. 
    On the afternoon of July 12, 1892, the steamboat Noordland, operated by Red Star Line Company [1] lay on the Scheldt River in the port of Antwerp, preparing to sail for America. Along with numerous steerage (3rd class) passengers [2], which  had separate apartments for the single men, single women, and married couples, I went up to the lower deck of the ship. Then the first-class passengers, who were to travel in spacious comfortable cabins on the upper deck, and the second-class passengers, who were expected to have simpler cabins boarded Noordland.

    Before landing the passengers of steerage were gathered in the gloomy building of the steamship company, smelling of carbolic acid. After two hours of tedious waiting they were examined by a doctor, who tried in half a minute identify people with communicable diseases and physically handicapped people for which the way to the Promised Land America was closed. Then each of us was asked about 20 questions: name, place of birth, age, occupation, etc., the answers of which were recorded in a special journal called the ship’s manifest.

                                                              Steamship Noordland.

      The majority of the passengers around me were emigrants from Northern Europe as well as the western and southern outskirts of Russia who had decided to try their luck on American soil: handymen, builders, carpenters, peasants, craftsmen, and their wives and children. I was forced to witness oppressive scenes of crushed hope whenever a hidden malady was found in one member of a family, often a child, and their way to the promised America was barred. The family had to make an agonizing decision in a short time: should they all stay in Europe, or leave one member behind to the vagaries of fate?

     I remember a large Jewish family from a small town in Little Russia, who had, with great difficulty, reached Antwerp via Germany and who stood ahead of me in line. The doctor examined them and found that all except thirteen-year-old Goldele were healthy and could sail to America. But the girl couldn’t go because she had an infectious disease of the eyes: trachoma. At first, they didn’t even understand what this meant. Then they realized that Goldele had to stay here, in a foreign land, in Antwerp. Wails, cries, and howls followed. The mother fainted twice. The father wanted to remain, but it was impossible: the whole Schiffekarte would be wasted[1]. Then they decided that they would go, and Goldele would remain until her eyes could be cured… Who knows whether they will ever meet again?


                                                                                .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .

    When the last passenger had boarded the Noordland, the drawn-out blast of the steamship’s horn rang out over the pier, the chain of the anchor clanged, and the crowd that had come to see the boat off, frozen stiff from the long wait, came alive: hats and kerchiefs flew into the air while shouts of farewell and the sobs of emotional ladies resounded. Once the gangplanks were removed, the bridge watchkeeper gave the command: “Cast off!” The sailors dropped the mooring lines from their posts, and the last thread connecting the massive transatlantic steamer to dry land was broken. Thick smoke poured down from a huge black pipe, the propeller began to pick up speed, and the ship began to slowly pull away from the pier. The coast shrank and receded into the distance, and along with it the array of steep-roofed medieval houses with lancet windows, lapidary shops, stately bank buildings, and the ancient Het Steen castle with sharply tapered turrets resembling an illustration of the famous Tower of London in a high school history textbook.

     This poetry, as though merged with the landscape, came to mind as I stood on the deck in the midst of the multilingual crowd. They were once read by my Antwerp friend Franz Gittens as he sat by the fireplace with a mug of good old ale. A chance meeting with him changed the course of my life…

     If it hadn’t been for dear old Gittens, I could have fallen prey to a scammer who claimed to be an agent of the steamship company. He was offering cheap tickets for a freight ship to New York with fewer conveniences compared to a passenger ship, but also lower prices. Of the funds gathered by my unforgettable Zhenya, only about 50 rubles remained, whereas the cheapest third-class ticket to New York on a passenger ship cost 62 rubles.

      The Lord himself must have decided to help me and seated Franz Gittens at table next to mine in one of Antwerp’s pubs, making him an unwitting witness to my negotiations with the “agent.” At the time, in my naivety, I was glad that, thanks to my knowledge of French, I could strike a good bargain with the “experienced agent,” and I was preparing to lay down 45 rubles (the agent accepted any currency) when a well-dressed gentleman who looked to be about fifty years old, wearing an elegant frock-coat with a wide cravat, having gotten up suddenly from the table next to us, swiftly approached and began speaking to my counterpart harshly and loudly in Dutch. The agent, who had turned pale, mumbled something in reply, glanced around him looking for an escape route, and then took off headlong into the partially open door and disappeared in the crowd.

     “Forgive me for interrupting your conversation,” said the stranger, switching to French, “but a little longer, and you, my dear young man, would have made an irreparable mistake. Our police have long been hunting after a band of port conmen who enrich themselves at the expense of trusting, inexperienced emigrants. After all, the steamship on which that rapscallion was offering you a ticket only goes to the English city of Portsmouth, which is only about three hundred miles away. Many migrants have already fallen for this simple ploy. In large ports like ours, even respectable people participate in scams like this; recently, a retired colonel was convicted in Antwerp for ticket fraud! By the way, tell me, did he by chance offer to provide you with feminine company?”

                                                              .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .

    All day, despite the tedious screening and long wait, I never stopped feeling a joyful excitement:

    I did it! Despite all the obstacles! Finally I'm truly free and can start a new life, bidding my past goodbye forever!  Nobody can tell me what to do or how to do it, who to date or when. At last, I can live in harmony with my self-image, forever ridding myself of all these horrid skirts, frills and ruffles, vapid talk of love, suitors, fashion and beauty, servants and household management. God made a mistake when He imprisoned me in a woman's body—a body I've felt alienated from for so many years, for since childhood I've known myself to not be of the weaker sex; in both heart and mind I've belonged to the stronger, the sex capable of great achievements. The very thought of having to get married— as Mama has been pushing for me to do for several years now—the idea of my body being touched by some mustachioed man smelling of horses and tobacco—it was all driving me to complete despair, making me want to end this agonizing life. Better eternal rest than daily torment!

    I remember my dear sister Varvara, my beloved Vavochka. She was married off when she was barely seventeen. They gave her, against her will, to that pompous, whiskered monster, the retired Major Volchaninov. Vavochka hadn't suffered long when, less than a year after the wedding, God took her to Heaven. Thank God that I am now spared of that prospect.

   As I always do in moments of emotional turmoil, I opened the cherished book that has become my guiding star in this world:

   "These two contradictory emotions – love for my father and aversion to my own sex – troubled my young soul with equal force. With a resolve and constancy rare in one so young I set about working out a plan to escape the sphere prescribed by nature and custom to the female sex.  

    Freedom, a precious gift from heaven, has at last become my portion forever! I respire it, revel in it, feel it in my heart and soul. It penetrates and animates my existence. You, young women of my own age, only you can comprehend my rapture, only you can value my happiness! You, who must account every step, who cannot go fifteen feet without supervision and protection, who from the cradle to the grave are eternally guarded, God knows from whom and from what".

    These words are deeply consonant with my own thoughts. Am I any less capable than the young Lady Durova, who eighty years ago managed to turn herself into the valiant cavalryman, Cornet Alexandrov? I believe that I, Nicolai de Raylan, who was once an unremarkable schoolgirl, was born for feats and accomplishments. Perhaps I too will become a brave hussar, although I will have to serve a foreign country rather than my homeland.

    The sun was already close to setting when the first waves hit the bow of the ship as it set off, the expanse of the azure sea sparkling before us. Goodbye, Old World—who knows if I'll ever see your shores again? 

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[1] Red Star Line was founded in 1872 by shipping magnates from the United States and  Antwerp, Belgium. Over the years, the company operated a total of 23 ships, all of which had names ending in ‘land’. Around 1890, it carried over 50,000 passengers annually to New York and Philadelphia. The steamer NOORDLAND was built for Red Star Line in 1883 in Great Britain. It details were - 5,212 gross tons, length 400ft, beam 47ft, four masts, and a speed of 13 knots.  There was accommodation for 63-1st, 56-2nd and 500-3rd class (steerage) passengers. (

[2] Steerage is a term for the lowest category of passenger accommodation in a ship. It is originated in the fact that these passengers were allowed space in the machinery spaces of the ship.

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