BY CLARA VIEBIG TRANSLATED BY H. RAAHAUGE
LONDON: JOHN LANE, THE BODLEY HEAD NEW YORK: JOHN LANE COMPANY. MCMVIII
PLYMOUTH: WILLIAM BRENDON AND SON, LTD., PRINTERS
"The rats! Ugh, the rats!" cried beautiful Mrs. Tiralla, as she stood in the cellar with her maid. They had gone down to fetch some of the pickled cabbage from the tub in the corner in order to cook it, and the maid was carrying the lamp whilst Mrs. Tiralla held the earthenware dish. But now she let it fall with a piercing shriek, and lifted her skirts so high that you could see her gay-coloured, striped stockings, and her neat feet encased in shiny leather slippers.
"Where are the rats?" The maid laughed and showed all her big white teeth. "I can't see any rats. There are none here, Pani," and she looked at her mistress with a half stupid, half cunning leer on her face. "Pani must have been dreaming, there's not a living thing in the cellar except Pani and Marianna. Sh! sh! hark!" She bent her head and listened for a moment; then she shook it and laughed again. "Rats would patter, but there's no sound of anything."
She raised the lamp, so that the light shone all around. Gliding shadows fell on the black walls gleaming with moisture, and showed up the cracks in [Pg 2] the rough masonry, the places where the bricks were crumbling away, and the dark corners in which hung big spider-webs. It was the old cellar of an old house in which the two women were standing, and a very neglected one to boot. It had never been cleared. Turf and coals, all higgledy-piggledy, were stored away near the tub containing the Sauerkraut; and amongst the many wine bottles that lay scattered about on the floor there were just as many empty ones as full ones. The shelves, which once upon a time had reached half-way up the cellar walls, had fallen to pieces, and were now nothing but a heap of rotting wood. All kinds of rubbish lay amongst the potatoes, and broken hooks, broomsticks, and old pieces of pot stuck out of the sand, into which, here and there, a bundle of herbs had been carelessly thrust, in order to keep it through the winter. The place had never been aired, as there was nothing but a very small grating right at the top, which was never opened; and it smelt foul. The lamp gave a dim light, as though stifled by the mustiness, and the two figures—the clumsy figure of the maid and the more dainty one of the mistress—were encircled by a vaporous, glimmering mist.
"But there are rats here, do you see, do you hear? Ugh!" Mrs. Tiralla again gave a loud shriek, her face was pale, and, opening her sparkling eyes wide as if with terror, she seized hold of the girl's arm. "There was one! Ugh! Horrid animal!" She shook herself and gave a jump, as if one of the long-tailed monsters were already creeping up her warm body.
"Holy Mother!" As though infected with the exaggerated fear of her mistress, the maid now also gave a shrill scream and let the lamp fall, as her mistress [Pg 3] before the dish. It broke into many pieces and went out. They stood in pitch darkness.
"You stupid girl!" screamed her mistress nervously, and raised her hand as if to strike her.
The maid ducked down and jumped aside, as though she could see the lifted hand in spite of the darkness; her suppressed chuckling was heard in a distant corner of the cellar.
"If Pani is going to hit me, ha-ha! I shall stop here, ha-ha!"
"Nonsense. Hit you? I shouldn't think of such a thing," protested Mrs. Tiralla, trying to conciliate her. "Just come here. Give me your hand."
"Oh, no, no! I am sure Pani will hit me."
"Give me your hand, I say—at once. I'm not going to do anything to you, stupid. Marianna, where are you?"
Beautiful Mrs. Tiralla now seemed to be seized with real terror—a terror that was much more genuine than before. Her voice trembled with anxiety, her bosom heaved and sank rapidly; one moment she felt quite cold and the next her head burnt. Ugh! how dark it was. Just like a grave! She felt icy cold right down her back. Ah, how dreadful to be here in the dark, quite alone with those thoughts.
"Marianna!" She cried so loudly that it echoed from the vaulted roof. "Marianna, where are you?"
"Marianna, I'll give you my silk apron which you like so much. Marianna, but where are you?"
"Why, I'm here. I only went a couple of steps away from you. Here, Pani, here." The girl's warm hand seized hold of her mistress's cold, moist fingers, "So that Pani doesn't knock against anything," she whispered in an ingratiating voice.
Thus hand-in-hand the two women groped their way in the dark, until they came to the cellar steps.
"Praise be to the Holy Mother and all the saints!" lisped Mrs. Tiralla as she felt the first step of the slippery stone stairs under her feet. Fifteen steep steps more, and then, thank God, they would be at the top. Then it would be light again. And the dark thoughts would remain below in the darkness. She did not shudder now, when she was almost at the top; on the contrary, she could hardly help laughing, for she had at last succeeded in thoroughly frightening Marianna, who now firmly believed in rats. So she made up her mind that she would not scold the girl on account of the lamp. The thing was now to go on talking and complaining a great, great deal about the rats, so that everybody would soon say: "There are so many rats at Starydwor, in Anton Tiralla's house, that they dance on his benches and tables, that they devour his wheat on the barn floor whilst it's being thrashed, that they've nibbled at the mistress's beautiful dress in her wardrobe—her blue silk one, trimmed with lace." That would be splendid, splendid!
Mrs. Tiralla squeezed the girl's hand with a deep sigh of relief. "You see now that there are rats, although you would never believe it before; oh, ever so many."
"When Pani says there are rats, then there are rats," said the girl in a submissive tone of voice.
Mrs. Tiralla did not notice the smile that made the big mouth under the snub nose still bigger, nor the cunning, lurking gleam that flashed in the small, deep-set eyes.
"Ha-ha!" laughed the maid to herself, "did the Pani really think she was so stupid? Rats had to be [Pg 5] here. The Pani wished rats to be here; the Pani tried to make-believe that rats were here. Well, let people who were more stupid than she was believe it, for she, Marianna Śroka, was much too clever, nobody could humbug her. The mistress must have some reason for saying it, for there were no rats."
She pretended, however, to agree with her mistress, and when they saw daylight again she shuddered and said: "Pani is quite pale with fright. Psia krew, those horrible animals! They'll soon be eating the hair off our heads."
Mrs. Tiralla nodded. Then she said, "You can come to my room afterwards, and I'll give you the apron I've promised you."
"And the lace," said the maid, "the lace which the Pani showed me the other day, I'll put it on my apron."
"My lace on your apron!" Mrs. Tiralla's pale face grew red with anger. "Are you mad?"
"Oh, only a little bit of it—there's only a little bit left. What can Pani do with such a little bit? It's not worth keeping." And then the girl gave a loud, bold laugh, and added, "Then I'll say that Pani has given me it, as the rats would otherwise have devoured it. There are so many rats, the rats devour everything here."
A thought flashed through Mrs. Tiralla's mind, "How impertinent she was! What did she suspect? What did she know?"
The two women stared at each other for a few seconds as though they wished to read each other's thoughts. But then they both smiled.
"The Pani can rely upon me," the servant's smile seemed to say. "I'll pretend to be stupid: I'll hear nothing, see nothing, know nothing, just as it suits the Pani."
And the mistress's smile said: "That girl is so stupid, there's no need to fear her. She doesn't notice anything, she believes what is said to her. And even if she should notice something, she can be bought at a pinch with an apron, a bit of ribbon, a morsel of lace, or half a gulden."
"Now we've broken the dish, and there's no Sauerkraut for dinner, Marianna," said Mrs. Tiralla.
"Never mind, Pani," and the black-haired girl laughed until her narrow, sparkling eyes quite disappeared behind her prominent cheek-bones. "I'll go down in the cellar by myself with another dish and fetch up some 'kapusta'; Pani needn't fear the rats. And if he," with a short nod in the direction of the nearest door, "should say, 'Why are the dish and the lamp broken?' I'll answer, 'Oh, an accursed rat jumped over our hands and bit the Pani's hand and my nose. There are so many rats in the cellar that you can't go down any more with safety."
"That's right," said Mrs. Tiralla, and smiled contentedly. "There's so much vermin in this old house that it's quite dreadful. And we've cockroaches as well in the kitchen—"
"The walls are covered with them every evening," the girl chimed in eagerly. "The gospodarz had better come to my kitchen some evening, when the light's out, and see it for himself, and then he'll say, 'Ugh!' They fly at your head, and into your face, and against your nose, eyes, and ears. They crawl about everywhere—ugh!" She threw her apron over her head and gave a loud shriek.
"Psia krew, what a noise! Confound you, woman, can't you hold your tongue for five seconds, not for those few moments when I want to sleep?"
The door of the room was flung open and the master [Pg 7] began scolding the maid in an angry voice. But when he caught sight of his wife behind the girl his tone became gentler, even anxious. "What is it, what is it?" For Mrs. Tiralla had also screamed, as if in sudden terror. "Why do you both scream so? My heart! why do you both scream so? What has happened? Why, you're quite pale. Tell me, my Sophia, what's happened to you?"
You could see that this big man, with his strong limbs and ruddy-brown face, was very anxious about his wife, and, after hitching up his trousers (for he knew that she disliked him to take off his braces and make himself comfortable. "Fie, what a boor you are!" she would then say to him), he quickly approached her. "What on earth has happened to you? Tell me."
The woman's black eyes stared at him out of her pale face. "Holy Mother, the rats again!" she stammered, and stretched out her hands as though she wanted to seize hold of something.
Then Mr. Tiralla burst out laughing. "Rats? But, my dear little woman, there are always rats where there are pigs; and why shouldn't there be some here on the farm? If it's nothing but that." He laughed good-naturedly. "I thought you must have seen the little Plucka,[A] or the 'Babok,' the black man, in the cellar. Why didn't you say, 'All good spirits praise God!' and then the rats would also have ran away?"
[Footnote A: Plucka: a ghost with feet like a hen.]
"Don't blaspheme," she said in an icy tone. "God punish you for so doing." And when he playfully tried to embrace her, and pushed his enormous, hairy hand under her chin, she shrank back, and, holding her apron up to her eyes, she burst into tears. She sobbed bitterly.
It was in vain that the man tried to pull the apron away; she held it firmly pressed against her face. Her slender fingers, which for a farmer's wife were singularly soft, had an enormous power of resistance.
He felt quite dismayed. "My heart, my dove, Sophia, what is the matter with you?" He tried in vain to catch a glimpse of her face. "Confound you, woman, why are you grinning?" he suddenly roared, turning to the maid who was still standing in the same place with a broad smile on her face. "Drat you! it's you who have vexed the mistress."
"No, no, Panje, not I. It was the rats, I swear it. If only the gospodarz would go down into the cellar he would see for himself how they run on the floor and jump up the walls. And in my kitchen he can see the cockroaches—hundreds of thousands, hundred thousand millions of them! Some day they'll fall into Pan Tiralla's food, and then the master will see them for himself."
"Just you try to do it!" Tiralla raised his heavy hand as if to strike the maid, but she evaded him as adroitly as she before had evaded her mistress. It was so ludicrous to see her duck down behind her mistress and make use of her as a bulwark, that the uncouth man roared with laughter. "You needn't fear, you idiot," he said good-naturedly. "I'm not going to hit you. I know very well that you're a little devil, but I don't for a moment think you'll put any dirt into my plate."
"Oh, no," she assured him ingenuously, "I won't do that," and she came out from behind her mistress.
He pinched her firm cheek with his hairy hand. It hurt, and his rough fingers first left a white, then a burning red mark; but she put up with it in silence. No, the gospodarz wasn't angry. He was really much [Pg 9] better than his wife. All at once Marianna thought that her master was to be pitied. She drew a little nearer to him and threw him a glance full of promise from under her half-closed lids. If the old man wanted she was quite willing.
But Tiralla had only eyes for his wife. He continued to beg for a look from her. There was something ridiculous in the way this strong, already grey-haired man worried about this delicate, dainty little woman. "Sophia, my darling, what is the matter? Look at me, my dove, pray don't cry."
He succeeded at length in taking the apron away from her face. But when he tried to kiss her cheek her eyes sparkled, and she spat at him like an angry cat. "Oh, you've hurt me! Pooh, how you smell of manure and tobacco, and of gin, too. You stink, you boor!" And she spat on the ground.
"My darling," he said quite sadly, "what things you do say. I have only drunk one small—really, only one quite small glass—of gin to-day. I swear it by the Holy Mother."
"Don't pollute the Holy Mother by calling on her," she cried in a cutting voice. "Rather blaspheme her, that she sends you the sooner to hell, where you belong. I shall not shed a single tear for you, I swear that."
"What—what have I done to you?" the man stammered, quite terrified. "I've never done anything to you. I've bought you dresses, as many as you liked; I've taken you to balls as often as you liked; I've let you dance with whom you liked; I've never said 'no' when you've said 'yes'; and now you speak so horridly to me. You're ill, my dear; I'll send for the doctor."
"Yes, ill!" she cried, sobbing bitterly. "You've made me ill—you, you, you!" She rushed at him [Pg 10] as though she wanted to scratch his face with her nails. "I don't like you! I detest you! I—I hate you!" she shrieked in a piercing voice. Her eyes sparkled; she clenched her hands and struck her breast, and then she thrust all her fingers into her beautifully smooth hair and tore it out. Her dainty figure trembled and swayed, and she turned so pale that he thought she was going to faint.
The servant opened her eyes in amazement. What was the matter with her? Oh, how stupid she was, how stupid! Why shout it at the master if he hadn't noticed anything? Ay, now she had told him plainly enough—"I hate you!" And he, poor man (may God console him!), what did he do? Was it a laughing or a crying matter? Marianna Śroka did not know if she should think "Oh, you arrant fool!" or if she should wish, "If only he were my husband, or, at least, my lover." For the gospodarz was good, thoroughly good; he wouldn't stint, her—her and her two little ones. That woman was really too nasty. She didn't deserve such a good husband.
Hitherto her mistress had always had her sympathy, but in a sudden revulsion of feeling she now felt much more drawn towards her master. It was a shame how that woman treated him. She must really have bewitched him, that he put up with such things. It would be better if he took off his big, leather slipper, with the wooden heel, and hit her over the head with it and stunned her, rather than that he should beg and implore in that way. Oh, yes, of course there was no doubt about it, the master was enchanted; the big, stout man had been bewitched by that little woman, that lean goat. She was a "mora," who could change herself into a cat, or into one of those creatures that fly down the chimney on a broomstick. [Pg 11] The priest ought to know it; he would soon put a spoke into her wheel. But there was a better plan than that. She, Marianna, would take the matter into her own hands, then she alone would earn the gratitude of Pan Tiralla. She would take the tip of her shift and rub the bewitched man's forehead with it three times, and then the spell would leave him. And who knows what then might happen? Perhaps he might turn the woman out of the house then, as she was so horrid to him, and always slept in another room, and banged the door in his face. Wasn't he as strong as an ox? Wasn't he rather a fine-looking man? Even if his hair were bristly and already grey, and his eyes rather watery, he was still a man for all that. And he had money—oh, such a lot. The servant's heart beat more rapidly when she thought of it. All the shops in Gradewitz could be bought up with it, and those in Gnesen as well, and—who knows?—perhaps even those in Posen. What a pity it was that this woman, this witch, would some day get all that money. The maid cast a sidelong look at her mistress, which made her pretty but coarse face positively ugly.
Mrs. Sophia Tiralla stood weeping. Her shoulders drooped so dejectedly, and her head was bent so low, that you would have thought all the cares of the world were weighing her down. Her husband had given up his useless attempts to approach her, he stood as if rooted to the spot, and his pale blue, sleepy eyes wandered from the woman to the maid, and then from the maid to the woman in perplexed surprise.
"If only I knew what was the matter, darling," he said at last in a dispirited voice. "Good heavens! what flea has bitten you?"
The servant burst into a loud guffaw. How very comical it sounded. She couldn't compose herself [Pg 12] again, it really was too funny. A flea.—ha-ha, a flea! She thrust her fist into her mouth and bit it, so as to suppress her laughter.
Her mistress cast her an angry look. "How dare you? Go to your work. Dalej, dalej."
The maid grew frightened. Ugh, how furious her mistress looked! Her glance was as cold as steel. "Let that wicked look fall on the dog!" she murmured, protecting her face with her arm. And then the thought came to her, "Oh, dear, now she won't give me that apron!" All the same, it was better to keep on good terms with the mistress, she was the one who ruled the house. So she whispered in a tone of excuse:
"I'm sorry, Pani, but it was so funny when gospadarz—big, fat gospodarz—compared himself to a tiny little flea. I couldn't help it, I had to laugh." And she gave a waggish laugh, in which Mrs. Tiralla this time joined. There was something merciless in the laughter of the two women.
But Mr. Tiralla did not notice the mercilessness of it in his delight at seeing his wife in a better humour. He took her by the hand as if nothing had happened, and drew her into the room.
And she allowed him to draw her in. If he, even now, didn't notice that she hated him, in spite of all she had done, didn't even notice it when she told him it to his face, then he should feel it. It was his own fault. A cruel smile played for a moment round her short upper Up, but then the tears again started to her eyes.
As she was sitting there with him—he had tried to draw her on his knee, but she had adroitly evaded him, and had squeezed herself in between the table and the wall, so that he could not reach her so easily—certain thoughts were chasing each other with frightful [Pg 13] rapidity through her brain. She had often thought them out before, but they always made her tremble anew. A deep silence reigned in the room.
But Mr. Tiralla did not desire any further entertainment. It was enough for him if she were there, if he had the feeling that he only required to stretch out his arm in order to grasp her with his strong hand, to draw her to him, to caress her, even if she did not want it. After all, he was the stronger. He had thrown himself full length on the bench near the stove, but he could scarcely find room there for his huge limbs, which stuck out on all sides. He sighed. He had already tramped across his fields that morning, and had seen that the winter corn was getting on all right, had heard the busy flails keeping time in the barn, had looked for a long time at the cows chewing the cud in the shed, and had stroked his two splendid horses. That had, indeed, been a day's work. Now he had a perfect right to rest a little. Besides, there was snow in the air, a big, thick, grey silence outside; so it was much more comfortable to lie in the warm room until the barschtsch, and the cabbage and the sausages were brought in. And after dinner it would be nice to lie down again, until it was time to go to the village inn. There he would meet the gentry, sometimes even the priest. His Reverence didn't disdain to drink a glass with them now and then, and talk over the news, although he didn't care for it to be mentioned later on that he had been there. Quite a sociable man, that priest, and not so strict as Sophia by a long way. Mr. Tiralla felt quite friendly towards him. He wouldn't cast his wickedness in his teeth. Ah, Sophia really did exaggerate. Didn't he go to Mass every Sunday, and every festival, too? Nobody could really expect him to go to matins as well; [Pg 14] hadn't he to get out of his bed much too early both summer and winter as it was? And weren't his particular saints hanging in his room; and wasn't he always ready to give what the Church demanded? There was no reason for him to be a hypocrite into the bargain; and when a man has got a pretty wife he wants to see something of her as well. So it would be difficult for her to blacken him in the priest's eyes, as he very well knew what a healthy man required.
Mr. Tiralla stretched his mighty limbs and opened his arms wide. Then he said, "Just come here, darling."
"What do you want?"
The man's spirit of enterprise vanished as he heard her icy tone. "Why don't you speak more kindly to me?" he said despondently. "You know I don't want anything from you. I—I only wanted to ask you if you would like a new dress for St. Stephen's Day? Or what would you say to a pair of ear-rings? Or would you, perhaps, like a new fur cloak when we drive to Posen to engage servants?"
"I don't want anything," she answered in the same cold voice.
"Just think it over, something will be sure to occur to you," he said encouragingly. "Only let me know what you want. Nothing will be too expensive for me if it's for you. Come, little woman, do come here." He again opened his arms.
But she did not move.
"Don't you want a new dress? I saw some beautiful materials in Gnesen. Rosenthal has a wonderful display in his window—oh my, such finery! Cherry-coloured cloth and black braid to trim it with. The prefect's wife wears such a dress on Sundays. Wouldn't you like to have the same, darling?"
Her eyes began to sparkle. New dresses! A dress like such a fine lady! She took a fancy to it; but only for a few moments, then the light in her eyes again died out. What was the good of that dress at the side of such a man? She shook her head energetically as she answered: "I won't have one."
He saw he would never attain his object in that way. Although Mr. Tiralla hated getting up he soon saw that he would have to squeeze himself down beside her behind the table or drag her out by main force. And then if she cried out, that lovely little dove, "Go away! Leave me, you beast!" then he would have to close her mouth with a kiss, by main force.
Mr. Tiralla cursed as he put one of his big feet down on the ground. It vexed him to have his peace disturbed in this way; but he could not resist her, she was too charming. He groaned as he rose from his seat.
She noted his approach with terror. Oh, now he would clasp those big white arms round her, which were all covered with downy hairs, those arms into which her mother had delivered her whilst she was still young and harmless, and had only thought of the dear saints, and had felt no desire for any man. Now she was no longer young and harmless, and—a sudden thought flashed through her brain—oh, perhaps she could persuade him to buy poison then! Poison for the rats! She had often broached the subject before, but he had never wanted to do it. He did not believe in the rats, and even if they were to jump over his nose he would not bring any poison into the house. The thought was repugnant to him. When she wanted poison for the vermin on the farm she had never been able to get it, except by producing a paper signed by Mr. Tiralla himself.
She shuddered. She shook as though with terror. "Oh, those rats!" Then she got up hesitatingly. She sat down again, as if undecided—she fell back almost heavily into her chair; but then she gave herself a jerk. She rose quickly, went up to her husband, and sat down on his knee.
The sudden change in her almost disconcerted him. But then he felt very happy. She had not been so nice to him for ever so long. She stroked his head, and he leant his forehead against her soft bosom, and felt it heave.
"How fast your heart beats."
"No wonder," she answered shortly. And then she kissed his bristly hair and fondled him. "My old man, my darling, you'll really buy me a new dress? Really?"
He nodded eagerly, he was too comfortable to speak.
"I should like," she continued, pressing his head still more firmly against her bosom, "I should like to wear such a cherry-coloured dress, trimmed with black braid, as the prefect's wife has. If she saw me in it in Gradewitz, or if your acquaintances in the town saw me, wouldn't they say, 'How well red suits Mrs. Tiralla. What a pretty wife Anton Tiralla has'!"
"But what good would it be to me?" she continued, and her voice sank and became quite feeble. "The rats would devour it."
"Drat the rats! Leave them alone!" He jumped up angrily, in spite of his great love for her; she had bothered him too often and too much with her rats. "To the devil with you and your everlasting rats!" Once for all poison should never come into his house; rather a thousand rats than one grain of poison. [Pg 17] Where there's poison the Evil One has a hand in the game.
But she again forced his head down on her bosom. He must remain there. It was as if he were being bewitched by her hands as they played about on his head.
He stammered like a child. "Leave the rats alone. Give me a kiss—there, there." He pointed to the back of his ears, to this place, that place, and she pinched her eyes together and pressed her mouth to his hair.
She drew a deep and trembling breath, as if she were struggling for air. She opened wide her firmly closed eyes and stared at one particular point—always at one point. It must be! Then she said with a voice that sounded like a caress, while her face, which he could not see, was distorted with aversion:
"Would you like to sleep, darling? There, lean on my arm. Let Marianna do the work alone, I'll stop with you. Oh, my darling, I'm so frightened."
She clung to him more closely, so closely that her warm body seemed to wind itself round him. "The rats, ugh!" She gave a trembling sigh. "Those horrid rats! We'll put poison, won't we, darling? Poison for rats; but soon, or I shall die of fright."
Mr. Trialla's farm lay some distance from the village, near the big pines and deep morass of Przykop. Starydwor was a large farm, and there were many in Starawieś who envied Mrs. Tiralla. She had been as poor as a church mouse before her marriage—her mother was the widow of a village schoolmaster—and had not even possessed six sets of under-linen and a cart full of kitchen utensils, and now she had so much money! But however much her enemies might wish her ill, nobody had ever been able to say of her that she had been unfaithful to her old husband.
The farmer was already getting on in years when he married her, and was a widower into the bargain with a big son. "That couldn't have been an easy matter either for the little thing," said those who were friendly towards Mrs. Tiralla. But she had behaved very well; anyhow, Mr. Tiralla had grown stout, and used to tell those who had warned him against proposing to the girl of seventeen, "that his Sophia was the sweetest woman in creation, and that he was living in clover." And he still said so, even now, after they had been married almost fifteen years. She had bewitched him. Her big eyes, that gleamed like dark velvet in her white face, played the fool with him. He could not be angry with her, although she often tried him sorely. And, all things considered, wasn't it rather nice of her that she was so coy and reserved? The owner of [Pg 19] Starydwor had, in the course of his life, come across enough women who had thrown themselves at his head. He could not even credit Hanusia, his first wife, with a similar modesty.
And his Sophia was pretty. It flattered the elderly man's vanity immensely that nobody ever spoke of her as "Mrs. Tiralla," plain and simple, but always as "the beautiful Mrs. Tiralla." When he drove with her through Gradewitz—he on the box, she on the seat behind, in her veil and feather boa—everybody stared. And even in Gnesen the officers dining at the hotel used to rush to the window and crane their necks in order to see the beautiful Mrs. Tiralla drive past. Then Mr. Tiralla would crack his whip and look very elated. Let them envy him his wife. They did not know—nobody knew—that he many an evening had received such a vigorous blow on the chest from her, when he had attempted to approach her, as nobody would ever have given such a delicate-looking woman credit for. On such occasions he would console himself with the thought that his Sophia never had cared for love-making. But she was a dear little woman, all the same, a beautiful woman, his own sweet wife, from whose hand the food tasted twice as good and agreed with him twice as well. And she was still as beautiful as on the first day; perhaps even more so now that she was over thirty, for she used to be much too thin and small, and did not weigh even seven stone. He could have carried her on his hand.
He would have loved to deck her out in gay colours, like a show-horse, but she had the tastes of a lady. That was because she had had a good education. She spoke German very fluently, and could also write it without a single mistake. She knew quite long pieces of poetry by heart. She could speak of Berlin, although [Pg 20] she had never been there, and that made a wonderful impression upon her husband. Gnesen and Posen and Breslau were also big towns, but Berlin—Berlin! He felt very ignorant compared with her, although in his youth he had gone to the Agricultural College at Samter, and had understood pretty well how to make something out of the five hundred acres he had inherited from his father. The children—the son of his first wife and little Rosa—would never be obliged to earn their living among strangers. And, what was of more importance still, his beloved Sophia's future would be secured if he died before her, for he had made a will in her favour, as he had promised her mother he would.
Mrs. Kluge had been able to close her eyes in peace, fully satisfied with having brought about this splendid match for her pretty daughter, for it was her wisdom and circumspection which had paved the way for it. Mrs. Kluge was of a better family than most of her neighbours. She had originally come from Breslau, but after her marriage with the schoolmaster from Posen she had had to wander about with him from one miserable Polish village to another, and had always been very poor. However, she had never allowed her little Sophia to play in the street with the other children, and the child had always had shoes and stockings to wear—rather suffer hunger in secret than go without them.
When Sophia grew older, and the time drew near for her to receive the Holy Sacrament for the first time, she became the priest's avowed favourite. Mrs. Kluge was a pious woman, perhaps the most pious woman in Gradewitz, and whilst making dresses for the farmers' wives in order to support herself and her child her lips used to move the whole time in [Pg 21] silent prayer. It was owing to her dressmaking that she had become acquainted with farmer Tiralla's wife—maybe also owing to her piety. For did it not seem as if it were Providence itself that had brought Mr. Tiralla as well as his wife to her room when she was making Mrs. Tiralla's last dress? He had driven his wife over—she was in delicate health at the time—and, as it was bitterly cold, he had come in as well, and had left the horse standing outside. He could hardly get through the low door, and had quite filled her small room. Little Sophia was handing her mother the pins whilst the dress was being tried on, and had received a shilling and a look from Mr. Tiralla which had made her blush and lower her dark eyes without knowing the reason why.
Sophia Kluge was modest; no young fellow in the neighbourhood could boast of being in her good graces. She did not even know why the lads and lasses used to steal out into the fields in the evenings, and why their tender songs should rise so plaintively to the starry skies. Sophia, with the black eyes and white face, which no sun, no country air had ever tanned, for she had always remained at home with her mother, was a pious child, so pious that the priest, still a young man with saint-like face, took a great deal of notice of her. He would send for this girl of eleven to come to him in his study, which the old housekeeper only got leave to enter three times a year. There he would speak to her of the joys of the angels and of the Heavenly Bridegroom, and enrapture himself and her with descriptions of heaven and of the streams of love which had flowed through the hearts of all the saints.
Mrs. Kluge was proud of the preference shown to her daughter; but the salvation of her soul did not make her lose sight of her earthly lot. She had [Pg 22] suffered many privations in her life, and had had to give up very much, and she wished her daughter to have some enjoyment even on this earth. It seemed to her like a sign from the saints that Mrs. Tiralla was prematurely delivered of a child and died before she had worn her new dress. Then Mr. Tiralla began to look out for another wife, and when he came in person to pay the outstanding account for the dress, the clever woman noticed the complacent smile which he cast at the young beauty. She was well aware of her daughter's beauty, and knew how to value it. When Mr. Tiralla said to her, "Your daughter is devilish good-looking," she had answered, "Ah, but she's still so young." And when he came once more and said, "Psia krew, how sad it is to live alone on such a dreary farm," the wise woman replied, "You'll have to marry again. There are plenty of widows and elderly spinsters who would be pleased to marry you." That had angered him. He neither wanted widows nor elderly spinsters, he coveted the youngest of them all.
Sophia had run to the priest and had wept and lamented when her mother had said to her, "Be happy, Mr. Tiralla wants to marry you." No, she wouldn't have him, she didn't want to marry at all.
Even now, after the lapse of fifteen years, Mrs. Tiralla's heart swelled with bitterness when she lay awake at night and thought of the way she had been treated. Her mother had begged and implored her with tears in her eyes. "We shall then be out of all our misery." And when the girl continued to shake her head she had boxed her ears—the right and the left indiscriminately—and had told her in a peremptory voice, "You shall marry Mr. Tiralla."
And her friend, the priest? Ah! Mrs. Tiralla once [Pg 23] more pictured herself in that quiet room in which, with hot cheeks and enraptured gaze, she had so often listened, on her knees, to the legends of the saints. Once more she held the hem of the cassock between her fingers and watered it with her tears. She had wept, had resisted: "No, I will not marry him, I cannot!" Had not the priest always told her—nay, positively adjured her—to remain a virgin, to remain unmarried, and in this way secure for herself a place in heaven? She had kissed his hands, "Help me, advise me!" Then, she did not know herself how it had happened, then she had suddenly jumped up from her knees, confused and trembling, and had rushed to the door and had hidden her face in a tumult of undreamt-of feelings, which had almost stunned her with their sudden attack. All at once she was no longer a girl, she was a woman, who, trembling, ardent, feverish with desire, had become self-conscious. How blissful it was to be a—his chosen one. To sit all one's life in that quiet room with the saints. In the girl's confused dreams the figure of her Heavenly Friend seemed to mingle with that of her earthly one. Oh, how exquisite he was, how beautiful! His hands were like ivory, his cheeks like velvet. And his kiss——
Instead of him Mr. Tiralla had come——
Mrs. Tiralla had placed a footstool in her bedroom under her picture of the Saviour carrying His flaming heart in His hand. The priest of her youth had left Starawieś long ago—he had asked to be removed from the neighbourhood—but she still prayed a great deal.
It was the morning after Mr. Tiralla had drunk a glass too much in his joy at her unusual display of tenderness, and as she got out of bed her first glance fell on the picture opposite. She crossed herself, and [Pg 24] then, gliding on her bare feet to the footstool, she knelt down and prayed for a long time.
Mr. Tiralla had promised her faithfully, as he yesterday lay in her arms, that he would fill up the paper to-day and would drive over to Gnesen and fetch the poison for the rats himself. How was it that she felt so quiet about it? She could not understand it herself. Even if her heart did beat a little faster, it was not from fear, but only from expectation of something good, joyful, long hoped for. Fifteen years—ah, fifteen long years.
She continued to murmur words of prayer, whilst her thoughts were with her husband on his way to the chemist's in Gnesen. But suddenly she pressed her lips tightly together. Her mouth looked very inflexible. She forgot that she was praying—her heart was filled with fierce curses and accusations. Her mother, who had sold her—sold her like one sells a young calf (why not call a spade a spade?)—was dead.
Mrs. Kluge had not long been able to enjoy the thought that the little house which she had formerly rented at last was hers, and that she had no longer to make dresses at any price for the farmers' wives, who were everlastingly grumbling. She had not long been able to enjoy the thought, and that served her right!
The woman's eyes gleamed as though with satisfaction. Her mother had had to leave everything behind which she had stipulated for as payment for her daughter. Now she had long ago turned to dust. But the other culprit, the buyer? Oh, Mr. Tiralla had grown stout, he did not look as though he also would soon be lying under ground.
"Holy saints! Holy Mother!" She raised her hands in prayer. She did not exactly know how she was to put her prayer into words, it would sound too [Pg 25] awful if she were to say, "Let him die; he must die!" It was as though she were going to expose herself in her nakedness to the Holy Virgin and all the saints. No, that would not do.
She let her hands fall in her perplexity. What now? But then it suddenly occurred to her, why need she tell everything to the saints? Why trouble them? Surely it would be enough if she secured their help. So she prayed: "Holy Mary, pure Virgin, oh, bring about by means of thy divine power and that of all the saints that he really goes to Gnesen, that he at last fetches the poison—the poison for the rats. I entreat thee, I implore thee!"
She wrung her hands and wept bitterly; she hit her breast with such force that she hurt herself. What she had suffered from her husband, and would suffer again and again. He would not leave her in peace, and she hated him, she loathed his eager, outstretched hands. If only she could have gone into a convent, how happy she would have been there. All that filled her once more with horror. She had been so terrified on her wedding night, when her husband, intoxicated with joy and wine, had embraced her; so terrified when she felt she was about to become a mother against her will; so terrified when the nurse had laid the little live girl on her bosom. She had pulled herself together and endured it when she felt the little seeking mouth at her breast, although it was as if a stream of icy-cold water were running down her. But then, when her husband had appeared, had placed himself near the bed in which she lay so feeble, so weak, so at his mercy, and had said with such a satisfied smirk, "Psia krew, we've done that well!" then she could not restrain herself any longer. She had uttered a cry, a feeble, plaintive, yet piercing cry, and had [Pg 26] reared herself up with her last strength, so that the little creature on her breast had begun to whimper and whine like a young puppy. The nurse had hastened to the bedside, quite terrified, and had made the sign of the cross—"All good spirits!" No doubt she thought that the "Krasnoludki," the wicked dwarfs, wanted to steal the new-born child. She had quickly thrown her rosary round the infant's neck, and had sprinkled the bed with holy water. But the young mother had burst into tears—into hopeless, never-ending tears. Then Mrs. Tiralla had been very ill, so ill that her anxious husband had not only sent for the doctor from Gradewitz, but also for the best physician in Gnesen. Both doctors had assured him, however, that there was no danger, that his young wife was only very weak and nervous.
Mr. Tiralla could not understand why.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Mrs. Tiralla now got up from her prayers. It was high time to urge her husband to start for Gnesen. Perhaps he was still lying in bed. She dressed in angry haste. She did not arrange her thick hair with her usual care—her hands were trembling, she was in a hurry. No sound of wheels reached her attentive ear, the man could not be taking the carriage out of the coach-house. Her husband must still be sleeping.
Hastily throwing on her skirt, and without waiting to fasten her blouse, she ran across the stone passage to the room into which she had been drawn as a trembling bride, and in which her little girl had been born. There he was, still lying in the big bed, snoring.
"Get up!" She seized him by the shoulder and shook him.
His hair stood up like bristles around his forehead. [Pg 27] "How horrible he looked!" she thought. And what did the room smell of? Drink. That disgusting smell came from him.
No feeling of compassion softened her eyes. She stood bolt upright at the side of the bed and scanned him from top to toe with sparkling eyes. He would soon lie there again.
A triumphant cry rose to her lips, but she suppressed it. Silence, silence. What would that inquisitive maid think if she rejoiced in this way? She seized hold of her husband once more with renewed strength, and shook him so vigorously that he started up.
Mr. Tiralla stared around with eyes that were still quite dim. Who was there? Why didn't they leave him in peace? He wanted to sleep longer.
"Get up!" she shouted to him. "You've to go out. It is time, high time!"
"Who must go out? Not I," he stammered drowsily, and fell back on his pillow.
He was so heavy that she could not lift him; her shaking and her cry of "Get up!" were of no avail. Then, in her anger, she poured some icy-cold water on his face. That helped.
He opened his eyes, suddenly quite wide awake. "Ah, my dove, are you coming to me?" he said tenderly, and stretched out his arms.
She hit him across his fingers. "Leave that nonsense!" she said coldly. But then her voice grew softer. "You've promised to drive to Gnesen, remember. It's time!"
"To Gnesen—Gnesen? I'm not going there. What have I to do there?" He had no idea of what he had said. What he had promised the day before in his transport of joy was now quite forgotten.
She saw with despair that she would have to start [Pg 28] afresh. She sat down on his bed, and, clenching her teeth, threw her arms round him and began to coax him. "You promised me—to go—to the chemist's—about the rats—you remember—the rats."
"What do I care for rats?" he exclaimed, laughing boisterously. "As long as the rats don't jump on my bed they don't disturb me." And he gave her a resounding kiss.
She submitted to it with closed eyes; she was deadly pale. Suddenly she twisted herself out of his arms, and, looking at him fixedly with her black eyes, she said slowly and very softly, but every syllable was distinct: "If you don't go to Gnesen now, I'll jump into the Przykop. I'll drown myself in that big pool under the firs. I can't stand this any longer. If you don't go, then I will."
The man grew disconcerted. Why did she emphasize the words so strangely? What did she mean by it? Such nonsense! But then he made up his mind to go. He scolded and cursed as he got out of bed. "Psia krew, what nonsense it was to get poison for the sake of those few rats; they could easily be killed with a cudgel." He proposed to her that he should spend a whole night in the cellar hunting for them.
But she persisted in her demand. "You've promised me to do it! You've sworn it! I'll never believe you again if you perjure yourself in this way. I'll never allow you even to touch my fingers again if you keep your promises so badly."
"Well, well, all right then, I'll go," he said at last. Why did she make such a fuss of it? He put on his boots in a very bad humour.
She assisted him to dress; she held his coat for him in her eagerness to help him.
But as he was putting his arms into the sleeves of [Pg 29] his coat he drew them out again. "I won't go, all the same. What's the good? We'll set traps—yes, we will. Call Jendrek, he can go and buy them—two, three, as many as you want. He can fetch them at once from Gradewitz. Call him!"
She did not move; she was so startled that she trembled. Was he to escape her even at the last moment?
He stamped his foot. Wasn't she going? Was he to call the man? He walked angrily to the door.
Then she barred his passage; she fell on his breast half unconscious and quite exhausted. "I—I'll—if you'll do this to please me—I'll—I—will also do something to please you."
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Mr. Tiralla drove to Gnesen. Mrs. Tiralla herself had helped to harness the horse, and had stroked it tenderly whilst she did so. Jendrek had felt hot and cold and covetous as he listened to the soft words the beautiful woman had lavished on the dumb beast.
"Run, my pretty horse, run," she whispered softly to the animal, then she leant against the stable wall. She was hardly able as yet to stand upright; her knees still trembled under her; her heart still fluttered like that of a bird whose cage door had been opened and then closed again, just as it was going to fly out. She did not recover until her husband came out of the house booted and spurred. And whilst the man held the horse's head until his master had mounted the box, she went close up to the carriage, and, holding out her hand to her husband, said "Good-bye." There was something sympathetic in the tone of her voice, and as she looked at him her eyes, which were often so cold, seemed to promise him something.
He cracked his long whip and urged the horse on. "Huj, het!" If only he were home again! But if she had the thing so much at heart he could easily please her by driving to Gnesen. She was such a sweet little woman, was his Sophia.
Mrs. Tiralla stood looking after her husband for a long while. For the first time in fifteen years she felt something like affection for him—affection and gratitude. Then she drew a long breath and went back into the house.
It was very quiet, as quiet as if Mr. Tiralla had never filled it with his loud voice and broad figure. The maidservant was in the field fetching potatoes, the men were in the barn, Rosa was at school. She was quite alone.
"Ah!" The woman raised her arms with a deep sigh and ran through the room as if she were flying. How happy she felt—ah, how happy! She had not felt so happy for years. She walked round the big room and examined it. She would place a sofa there, where the big bed stood. It was the biggest and best room in the house; she would make a drawing-room of it. Or perhaps Mikolai would like to have it when he came home after serving his three years in the army? She would not make a point of having the room, she was quite satisfied with her own bedroom.
She sat down near the window and gazed dreamily into space. She could generally see the village, with its sunken cottages and thatched roofs all covered with moss, and the new brick walls of the fine-looking inn through the open yard door as in a frame, but to-day there was nothing to be seen. Everything was hidden by the driving snow-flakes. Oh, what a storm, what a lot of snow! If that continued Mr. Tiralla would be delayed on the way, he would not be able to come back [Pg 31] so soon. Hark! was not that the sound of a bell—the bell on the horse that she herself had harnessed? She jumped up, startled. Surely he would not turn back on account of the storm without effecting his purpose?
She pressed both hands against her throbbing heart and listened. Then she smiled reassuringly. Ah, that was no bell outside, that was here—here, in both ears! Now it began to ring violently. All at once her face was suffused with a burning blush, and she had to hold her head with both hands in order to support it. Oh, how frightened she felt. What had she done? What was she going to do?
She looked round the room with terror in her eyes; the silence, the emptiness now alarmed her. What was she to say when his son came back from the army? What was she to tell him about his father? Would he believe her? Wouldn't he point at her with his fingers and say, "She's done it"? Oh, what was the meaning of this great fear? Where did these thoughts come from all at once? She had never had them before.
Jumping up from her seat near the window she ran into the kitchen; the emptiness of the house tortured and tormented her to such a degree that she could not bear to be any longer in her husband's room. But the kitchen was also empty, the servant had not yet returned. Mrs. Tiralla cowered down near the fireplace, shivering with cold. How far could he be now? Could he be in Gnesen? Oh, no, the horse did not trot so quickly; still, it might be possible. Hadn't she given it sugar, and stroked and patted its head? It would be sure to trot well. And if he had already got to Gnesen, if he had already been to the chemist's, if he had even got the poison, the poison for the rats! [Pg 32] Ah! She could not help it, she had to scream aloud with fear. What had she done?
"Alas, alas!" She buried her head in her hands and moaned. But she had done nothing so far, not committed any crime. Why was she so terrified?
But she was going to do it!
She rose from her prostrate position, and, with a confident gesture, stroked back the hair from her forehead. She was going to do it, for she had prayed for it. There was no going back, the saints had heard it. Had not the priest always told her in years gone by, when she was still a child, that what she asked for would be granted? Her prayer was now before the highest throne. There was nothing to be done, it was to be. If the saints had not wished it to be so her husband would not have gone to Gnesen, in spite of all her urging, in spite of all her caresses.
This assurance calmed her. She began to bustle about in the kitchen and look into all the corners to see if the maid had not again put something aside for one of her followers. She was such a flighty person. Indeed, if she had not looked upon it as the duty of a Christian not to thrust the girl back into the misery from which Mr. Tiralla had rescued her, she ought to be turned out of the house—the sooner the better. She had still not had enough, even with those two brats. It was really a disgrace to have such a person in the house.
All the same, Mrs. Tiralla was glad, and gave a sigh of relief when Marianna came into the kitchen with her basket full of potatoes. She was happy at the thought of no longer being alone in the empty house, and quite forgot to scold the maid when the midday bell rang and there were no potatoes boiling on the fire.
The servant had seen Mr. Tiralla drive off—he had gone to Gnesen, Jendrek had told her—why should she hurry then? She could easily manage the Pani. If she agreed to everything she said the Pani would be quiet and not scold. But why on earth was the Pani always talking about rats? The master was to fetch poison, she had made a point of it, for when had she ever been so tender to him before? Hadn't she, Marianna, overheard her yesterday at the door? Ay, how she had flattered him! She had purred like a cat when it curls itself up on your lap. Poison for rats! Alas!
When the maid had seen her master drive off that morning she felt as if she must call out to him, "Stop! Don't go!" But she had held her tongue; what business was it of hers? If he were such a fool, well, it would be his own fault. Then her flirtation with Jendrek had made her entirely forget her master, until it all occurred to her again when she saw her mistress in the kitchen.
"The master has gone out," said Mrs. Tiralla, and although Marianna did not question her, she added hastily—"gone to Gnesen." Then she said with a blush, which the lie brought to her cheeks, "He wants to look at some winter materials for a suit at Rosenthal's."
The maid still said nothing, only nodded and began quickly to peel the potatoes that were in the basket.
"He'll probably go to the chemist's as well to fetch some poison for the rats."
She could not help it, the words were forced out against her will. She had to say it. The maid's silence brought them out. Why was she so quiet? What was she thinking of? Mrs. Tiralla was seized with a fit of trembling.
The maid raised her head. "Then Pani must be very pleased." Then she sighed and lowered her head again. "Poor master!"
"Why, what do you mean? 'Poor master!' Why do you say that?" Mrs. Tiralla trembled more and more.
"Well, isn't it 'poor master' to have to drive out in such awful weather? Who knows when poor master will be back again?" Marianna smiled.
Was it a malicious or a harmless smile? Mrs. Tiralla racked her brains to find out. Oh, she was quite harmless.
Still, she could not rid herself of the fear which had taken possession of her. She would have to take care how she behaved to the maid. Even if her flightiness were ever so objectionable to her, she would have to keep on good terms with her. So whilst the maid stood stirring something on the fire, in deep silence, Mrs. Tiralla went into her bedroom and brought out a gay-coloured Scotch shawl, which she had been fond of throwing over her own shoulders. "There," she said, putting it on the girl, who was still standing in the same place near the fire, "it's cold, and I see you've nothing to warm you."
"Padam da nog!" Marianna turned round as quick as lightning, and, stooping down, kissed her mistress's knee. "Oh, what a fine shawl, what a fine shawl! May the saints reward Pani for it. May they bless her to the end of her days." Then, kissing the shawl, she danced round the kitchen with it. "How it suits me! Oh, and it's so nice and so warm! Oh, and so gay!" She laid her finger on the gay colours and was as happy as a child.
"Oh, no, she had nothing to fear from her!" All at once Mrs. Tiralla recovered her spirits. She was [Pg 35] still young enough to understand the poor girl's delight at her gay shawl, and she laughed to see her joy.
'Mid laughing and joking the two women prepared the dinner.
When Rosa came home from school late, and very tired and worn out with wading through the snow, her mother, who was in a good humour, gave the hungry child a treat—a golden coloured omelette with raspberry jam. Then the two women made a strong cup of coffee for themselves and put one aside for Mr. Tiralla as well, and warmed his bed with hot bricks. He was to have a warm bed after his long drive. [Pg 36]
Roeschen—she had been christened Rosa, but he always called her Roeschen—was her father's favourite child, and his exact image, as Mrs. Tiralla used to say in a peculiar tone of voice. Yes, the girl had the same blue eyes as her father, although they were not so pale and watery as his, and the same coloured hair, for his must also have had a reddish tinge before it became grey. And that was why Mrs. Tiralla so often turned away when the child had wanted to get on her lap and, with clumsy little fingers, stroke her cheek.
However, Mrs. Tiralla was in a more affectionate mood to-night. The little girl looked up in astonishment when she felt a soft hand on her head; but then she clung to her mother, and her dull eyes gleamed with joy and gratitude.
Mr. Tiralla had come back from Gnesen, and it seemed to the woman as if a star were now standing over the house, showing her distinctly the way she was to go. She felt happier than she had been for a long time.
Her husband had handed her the packet from the chemist's as if it had been a box of sweets he sometimes brought her from town. It was nicely done up in striped tissue paper with a piece of red string round it. But, on taking off the string, she had caught sight of a grinning death's head and cross-bones on the lid, [Pg 37] and had read the word "Poison." She had screamed and let the box fall on the table.
"There, you see, now you're afraid of it as well," said Mr. Tiralla.
How little he knew her. She and fear?
"How am I to prepare it? How am I to prepare it?" she cried in an eager voice.
He showed her how. He felt very important, for the chemist had warned him to be exceedingly careful. He would not have given such a thing to anybody else but the well-known Mr. Tiralla, the man had said, not even if they had brought a paper from the doctor. She was to strew some of the white powder, which looked as harmless as sifted sugar, on a small piece of raw meat; and put it in the corners. There would be no rats left in the cellar then. Or she could strew some of the wheat which was in the paper bag, and which you could hardly distinguish from ordinary wheat, as it only looked a little redder.
"But I implore you to be careful, my dove. Swear that you'll be very careful, Sophia." Mr. Tiralla was seized with a sudden fear, and wiped the perspiration from his forehead. He felt burning, although the cold snow still clung to his fur collar and cap. He took oft his top-coat and stretched his limbs as though he felt oppressed, whilst she stood motionless at the table and stared at the packet with gleaming eyes.
"Which is the most efficacious?" she asked in a dreamy voice, "the powder or the wheat?"
"They're both equally efficacious," he assured her uneasily. "The wheat is bad enough, but you've only to swallow a little of that white stuff—oh, you needn't even swallow it, hardly touch it with the tip of your tongue, and you're done for. It's a deadly poison—strychnine." He shuddered. "Oh, how could [Pg 38] I bring such a thing home with me? I am possessed by the devil. Give me it!" He snatched the packet out of her hands and ran to the stove, in which big logs of wood were crackling and spluttering.
"Are you mad?" She saw what he was going to do—he intended burning it. She was at his side in one bound, and, tearing the packet out of his hand, she hid it in her pocket.
"Give me it, give me it!" he cried.
She laughed at him and pressed her hand tightly against her pocket.
Then he began to wail and lament. Alas, alas, what had he done? How could he ever have been so foolish as to bring such a thing into the house? He would never have another peaceful hour, he would always be thinking that an accident might happen.
"But why," she asked in a calm voice, looking at him fixedly with her black eyes, "should an accident happen?"
"Alas, alas!" he moaned, and buried his head in his hands.
She had to comfort him. Her words calmed him; he was like a child. Then he asked her to stroke him; she did that also. At last he wanted to be helped to bed; he must have been drinking, although he denied it. The maid had to come as well; and whilst she took off his riding-boots he put his heavy head on his wife's shoulder, and she had to hold him in her arms.
When they had got him to bed they both looked very hot and flushed, for he had been pinching them in fun and had pretended to be quite helpless.
Then he sent for Roeschen, whom he had not seen the whole day, for she was already on her way to school when he was still snoring in bed, and when he drove to Gnesen she had not yet returned. And now [Pg 39] he longed for some one to fondle him. And the little girl knew very well what her father wanted; so she climbed up on his bed and laid her thin little arms round his neck and pressed her cool cheek to his. Then he talked to her in whispers and called her by an the pet names he could think of. She was his little red-haired girlie, his star, his song-bird, the apple of his eye, his sun, his balm of Gilead, his guardian angel, the key which was to open the door of heaven for him. And the child smiled and stroked him with her soft hands. She loved him so. He gave her everything her mother would not give her.
Still, she loved her mother in secret. Didn't everybody call her "the beautiful Mrs. Tiralla"? Didn't the schoolmaster, who was always so harsh, often send a message to her mother, and even pardon her faults and favour her just because she was the daughter of the beautiful Mrs. Tiralla? Rosa knew that she was not pretty; at least, she did not consider herself so when she plaited her curly, reddish hair before the looking-glass. Her mother's hair was as black as ebony and as smooth as silk, and her yellowish complexion and the tinge of red in her cheeks seemed twice as beautiful as her own freckles.
The growing child longed to be beautiful, although she did not exactly know why; and it disheartened and depressed her that she did not grow better-looking, in spite of all her fervent prayers. She used to kneel down at her bedside every evening in the little room she shared with Marianna and raise her hands in earnest supplication. She did not even know herself what all the things were which she prayed for.
Marianna was also a devout Christian, and, when they both lay in their beds, she would tell the listening child all about signs and wonders, about spells and [Pg 40] miraculous cures, and about the strange things that happened in the neighbourhood.
Hadn't farmer Kiebel heard the sound of a horn behind him in the wood not far from the new Jewish cemetery when he was driving back from Wronke to Obersitzko after the last fair! "Toot, toot, toot!" He had got down and had drawn lots of crosses in the snow with his whip in front of the trembling horses and all around the cart; and then the black huntsman had rushed past him with horns blowing, dogs barking, and making a fearful noise. His cloak had flapped so much that it had almost blown Pan Kiebel down from his cart; but the crosses in the snow had protected the pious man, and the black huntsman had had to ride on.
And there was a mountain at Ossowiec, where the witches had met last June, and where they would soon meet again in December, in order to deliberate where they should go in the shape of dust and wind. But if you painted "C.M.B.," the initials of the three Kings of the East, on all the doors and walls, no witch would be able to get in and throw something into your plate. Or you need only say to yourself, "God bless it," before you began to eat or drink, and then no witchcraft could harm your food, for the saints would hold their hands stretched out over the plate.
Those who regularly prayed to the Holy Mother or to the saints had no need to fear the devil, who, four weeks ago, had come to miller Kierski at midnight—the man who lived at Latalice, north of Gradewitz, and was always swearing and drinking—and had almost wrung his neck off. He had been left on the dunghill behind his barn, where he lay quite stiff and blue in the face; and if St. Peter's cock had not flown on to the roof of the mill and crowed three times, [Pg 41] so that the devil thought it was the miller's cock crowing in the early morning, the miller would have been found as dead as a door-nail, with his face turned round to his back; and his soul would already have been in hell.
Marianna firmly believed that ghosts were screaming in the pines outside, and that witches were dancing in the wind that howled round the farm; but above all she believed that the devil was running about on the Przykop like a will-o'-the-wisp, and was longing to get into the house, in order to fetch a soul to hell.
But even if she had not so firmly believed it, it would have amused her to whisper all kinds of strange stories to the trembling child, who had long ago crept into her bed and was clinging to her. Her stories became more and more marvellous, more and more weird. The night time, the moaning of the wind, the plaintive cry of the screech-owls perched in the old pines in the morass; above all, the darkness of the room, the deep silence, the loneliness, gave wings to the maid's fancy. Everything became instinct with life: a creature sighed in every tree, a voice spoke from every stone, something gasped for air under every clod of earth, something lurked in every pool. The branches that tapped against the window-panes were the fingers of the dead, the stars that shot across the heavens were wandering souls, and the clouds and winds were full of prophecies.
Once when she was a child, Marianna told Rosa, she had run in amongst some corn in order to pluck some ears and make herself a wreath of the red poppies. And there she had been seized by the "Zagak," a big man with a cudgel in his hand and a hat full of holes on his head, and with shoes through which all his toes were peeping. If a cart with creaking wheels had not [Pg 42] happened to drive past at that moment, in which a farmer was sitting, singing a hymn, the "Zagak" would not have let her go. But she got off that time with a fright and a torn skirt. She still shook when she thought of the "Zagak"—ugh! How fortunate it was that he could not get at her here in her warm bed. The woman shuddered voluptuously, and she and the child clung still more closely to each other.
Then Roeschen's little fingers clutched hold of Marianna's coarse ones, and both began to pray with all their might. What else could they do in the solitude and darkness of the night, surrounded by evil spirits that crept out of every corner, even out of the human breast? Prayer alone saved. And they prayed and prayed.
Big drops of perspiration and tears rolled down Roeschen's delicate little face and her limbs trembled.
Oh, if only the Holy Virgin would come and take her under her blue mantle. She was so terrified and in such pain. Her head ached; her back and her chest as well; her throat was so swollen that she could hardly swallow; her eyes burned as if with fever.
"Holy Mother!" The child could hardly look over the feather-bed, as she tried to pierce the darkness with her terrified eyes, so high had it been drawn up. "All good spirits praise God! Dear Holy Mother, hail, Mary!" Oh, there she was, there she stood in the darkness and nodded to her.
The darkness was no longer dark, the tapping of the fingers against the window-panes and the soughing of the wind round the house had all at once lost their terror. Oh, how sweet the Holy Mother looked, how mild, and so beautiful. She took the terrified child under her protection and smiled at her, until her burning [Pg 43] eyes dosed, until a glorious dream came to her in her slumbers and filled her soul with a sweet terror.
Was it any wonder, then, that Rosa Tiralla should cease petting her father when he suddenly began to moan and cry out, "Oh, what have I done? Oh, how terrified I am! I shall never have a quiet hour again. The devil has a hand in such a game!" and should say to him in a very earnest voice, "Why are you so terrified? Call on the Holy Mother; she wears a blue mantle, and she will wrap you in it. I'm often terrified, but then my fear disappears. Shall I call on her?"
"Yes, oh, yes." At any other time Mr. Tiralla would have burst out laughing, but to-day he nodded eagerly. And then he whispered in the child's ear, but so softly that his Sophia, who stood listening near the table as if ready to pounce on them, could not hear a single word. "I'm so terrified, I don't know why. Pray, pray."
Rosa slid down from the bed, and, kneeling on the skin rug, pressed her folded hands against her pale lips. She prayed fervently. They were the same old prayers which had been repeated mechanically so many times before; but they gained solemnity in the child's mouth. Her thin voice sounded deeper and more sonorous; the lamp-light shone on her reddish hair, that curled around her temples until it looked like a halo.
Mrs. Tiralla raised her head and glanced at her daughter; glanced at her and started, forgetting for a time the thoughts which had raged within her with such force that she had grown weak and incapable of making any resistance. Ah, yes, there was Rosa and there was Rosa's father. But Rosa was not the exact image of her father, all the same; she had also inherited [Pg 44] something from her. Mrs. Tiralla suddenly felt twenty years younger as if by magic. She pictured herself in the priest's quiet study and heard once more the wonderful stories with which he had captivated her so irresistibly. She had always listened to him in silence, but she had grown hot and red. She still felt how the blood used to rush to her head as though she had been drinking wine.
Oh, yes, the girl must go to a convent, there was no doubt about that. They would cut off her curly hair, that gleamed in the lamplight, when she took the veil; the linen band would cover her brow and her cheek. Only her small nose and her blue eyes would be seen. Oh, how sweet Rosa would look in a nun's dress. She would blossom like a rose in the Saviour's garden. Mrs. Tiralla was seized with a sudden love for her daughter, and she went up to her and laid her hand on her head.
Rosa was very happy. Her mother had even kissed her when she had said good night, and she felt as if a flame of light had flashed through her. She did not care to hear any of Marianna's stories to-night, although she generally begged for some. "I only want to pray," she said. And she prayed that her mother might always smile at her. She admired her so, her slender figure, her beautiful hair, and her velvety eyes. Nobody was as beautiful as her mother, only the Holy Virgin.
Rosa's eyes closed whilst she was still praying, and in her slumber she suddenly saw the Holy Mother standing by her bedside. She had exactly the same face as her own mother and wore the same dress, a dark blue skirt and a bright red, striped blouse. And the Holy Mother bent over her, so that she felt her warm breath on her cheek; she was probably listening [Pg 45] if she were asleep. Then the Holy Mother left her and listened at the bed where Marianna had been snoring for a long time; and then she went softly out of the room. Oh, how beautiful she was. The little girl fell soundly asleep with a prayer on her lips.
But Marianna was not asleep, even though she had pretended to be. What was her mistress doing, wandering about the house like that during the hours of the night? The country girl's hearing was as sharp as that of any denizen of the woods, and she could hear her going softly up and down the stairs and wandering restlessly through the rooms. Why wasn't the Pani asleep? And why had she come to their room? She must be up to something.
As soon as the child was fast asleep Marianna sat up in bed and placed her hand behind her ear. Now her mistress was in the kitchen. Psia krew! what was she rattling the coffee-mill for? Or was it the tin in which the sugar was kept?
"All good spirits!" The girl made the sign of the cross. Was the woman in league with the devil? The master had brought poison from Gnesen, poison for the rats. The servant's observant eyes had noticed the box on the table, the white box from the chemist's, with the black death's head on it. If now that woman downstairs were to put some of it in master's coffee or among the sifted sugar, of which he loved to pour half a basinful into his cup? Holy Mother!
The maid crouched down in her bed and drew the feather bed over her ears. She would neither see nor hear anything. What business was it of hers? The master was a kind man, but the mistress was really very kind too, and it was a difficult matter for such a poor servant-girl, who had already got two children [Pg 46] on her hands, to side with either party. It would be much better to have nothing to do with the whole affair.
But in spite of putting both fingers in her ears, for the thick feather bed was not enough, she still heard her mistress wandering restlessly backwards and forwards. And that went on till dawn, and prevented her falling asleep. She generally snored the whole night through, but to-day she heard the cock crowing on the dunghill and the dull lowing of the cows before she closed her eyes.
She overslept herself. When she at last awoke from her uneasy slumbers she found Rosa standing before the little bit of looking-glass plaiting her hair, and from the yard came the clatter of wooden shoes and the rattle of the chain in the well as Jendrek drew up the bucket.
"Holy Mary!" cried Marianna, as she jumped out of bed. "Why didn't you wake me, you wretch?" she said to the child furiously.
"I was just—just going to do it," answered Rosa in a tone of excuse. As she stood there in her short petticoats and bare shoulders she looked very small and thin. "I was just going to shake you."
But you could see that Rosa had never thought of waking the servant, her thoughts were otherwise occupied. She was still dreaming with her eyes open. Oh, if only she could have told some one what she had dreamt—it had been so beautiful. The Holy Mother had let her hold the Child Jesus in her arms, and she had felt the soft, warm little body on her breast. How it had clung to her. Rosa smiled blissfully to herself as she looked in the tarnished bit of looking-glass, all stained with soap-suds.
Marianna ran down into the kitchen without washing [Pg 47] herself or doing her hair. Oh, dear, there stood her mistress at the fireplace, her hair beautifully done and as neat as ever. Had she even made the coffee?
"The coffee is ready; you're so late," said Mrs. Tiralla. But she did not scold the servant for sleeping too long, she merely handed her the tray with the enormous coffee-cup on. "There, carry it in to him. I've already put sugar in it."
Marianna stared at her mistress in amazement. Her drowsiness suddenly disappeared; what she had thought of during the night suddenly occurred to her again. She stammered something and remained as if rooted to the spot, until her mistress said to her, laughing, "Take it to him. Why do you stand there like an idiot?"
No, it would be quite impossible for anybody to laugh like that who had put poison in the coffee. Marianna drew a breath of relief. But as she carried the tray across the stone passage she made the sign of the cross over it—"God bless it!"—as a kind of security. Now nothing could harm it. And as she smelt the warm, strong coffee, she could not help drinking some of it. She had had nothing to eat as yet, something warm would do her good. How strong the coffee was. It tasted quite bitter in spite of the sugar—pooh! But it was very good, all the same. She took another big gulp.
"Psia krew, you rascally woman! I suppose you're drinking some of my coffee, as I'm not getting it," shouted Mr. Tiralla from his bedroom. A boot, thrown by an expert hand, flew through the half-open door right against Marianna's apron. She gave a loud scream and let the tray fall; the sweetened coffee ran over her feet and along the stone passage.
"Psia krew!" A second boot came flying. The [Pg 48] door was thrown wide open, and there was Mr. Tiralla sitting on the edge of his bed angling with his bare feet for his slippers, which had disappeared under the bed.
The maid stood on the threshold, soaked.
Mr. Tiralla burst into a loud laugh. "What a blockhead you are, to be sure!" he shouted, slapping his thighs. "Good heavens, was there ever such an idiotic person! Don't stare at me so stupidly. Come, come, you needn't begin to cry directly. Go and fetch some more coffee."
"The Pani will hit me," the girl sobbed. "I'm so frightened, so terribly frightened."
"Sophia," shouted Mr. Tiralla, who had had a very good night, "Sophia, this stupid girl has spilt the coffee; now don't hit her."
Mrs. Tiralla was already on the spot. She grew deadly pale and then burning red as she saw the sweetened coffee running along the ground like a brown stream.
The servant ducked down; now the mistress would be sure to hit her. But she did nothing of the sort. She did not even raise her hand in menace, she simply said, "It wasn't to be. Make him some more coffee." Then she fetched a cloth and wiped it up with her own hands, collected the broken bits of china, and said nothing more.
Marianna felt quite confused. She had never broken anything without being punished for it by her different mistresses. And to-day she hadn't even got a box on the ears nor been threatened with one. She went about like a dog on the scent; there was something wrong here. The place was haunted. She kept her eye on the mistress, but she was sitting in the room near the window reading. The master had gone into [Pg 49] the fields to try to shoot a hare; and Rosa was at school. Oh, if only she had had a soul to speak to.
The maid felt oppressed, as though a very important secret were weighing her down. Besides, she really did feel as if she had a heavy weight on her chest. What could it be? She had to draw her breath the whole time, and she could not swallow; she felt as if she were choking. Oh, how terrified she was! And then she had such an awful thirst, her mouth was quite parched. She staggered to the bucket; she wanted to drink, but she could not. Holy Mother, why could she not swallow? All of a sudden she was seized with a fit of trembling, which grew so severe that she had to sit down on the floor just where she stood. Oh, how ill she felt. Her eyes grew dim, and she was bathed in perspiration. Now she could not breathe at all. She tried to scream, to cry for help; she could not do that either. She endeavoured to get up, but she was perfectly stiff; her head felt as if it were in splints. Her hands were clenched as though she were in a fit. Oh, God, have mercy t Was she going to die? How her limbs ached.
The maid lay there in a state of collapse, until she gradually recovered so far as to be able to rise, moaning and groaning, and stagger out of the kitchen into the yard. There she was very sick.
Jendrek came up to her and laughed as he saw her standing there. Ha-ha, had she been to a dance, unknown to everybody? But the harvest-homes were over, and Twelfth Day had not yet come round. "What had she been eating or drinking to make herself so ill?" he inquired in a scoffing tone.
She did not answer. All she could do was to raise her head a very little and give him a strange look.
He grew terrified when he saw how enormous the [Pg 50] pupils of her eyes had become. Ugh! she did look awful. Instead of telling her how pleased he was to think that she for once in a way could sympathize with his feelings on a Monday morning, he grasped her by the arm and asked, "Is anything the matter? Tell me."
She groaned and gave a feeble nod. When he had asked her what she had been eating, the thought had pierced her stupefied brain that she must have been bewitched, that she must have eaten or dr——
"Poison, poison!" she suddenly shrieked, and throwing herself on the ground she rolled about and screamed, so that the man shrunk back in fright.
Mrs. Tiralla must also have heard the girl's shrieks, for she came out of the house at once. She ran up to the maid, but as the latter continued to scream "Poison, poison!" in a loud voice, and roll about as if she were mad, with her hands pressed against her body, the woman grew so deadly pale that Jendrek thought she would also fall down.
"Silence, silence!" she cried hastily, holding her hand before Marianna's mouth. But as the latter pushed her hand away and went on screaming, she looked round like a terrified animal at bay.
Jendrek felt quite anxious when he saw his mistress's eyes. "Shall I go to Gradewitz and fetch the doctor?" he asked timidly.
"No," cried the woman angrily. And then, rousing herself, she seized hold of his smock and cried, "Are you mad? She's only drunk, only drunk, nothing else."
"I'm not drunk!" screamed Marianna. Then she added in a furious voice, "That fool, that Jendrek, says I'm drunk; but let him sweep before his own door first. I've not drunk anything, not a drop, and [Pg 51] that I'll swear." All at once Marianna recovered her voice. "That fool! It's poison that I've got in my body. I've been poisoned; I'm going to die—oh, oh!"
The man opened his eyes in amazement.
When Mrs. Tiralla noticed that he was listening intently to what Marianna was saying she grew as red as she before had been pale. Then, with a short, forced laugh, she said, "Nonsense. Poison? Where should you have got it from? You're raving, my girl. Come," she added, helping the girl to rise, "lean on my arm. You're already better, aren't you? I'll put you to bed. I'll make you a strong cup of tea. I'll give you a hot-water bottle. And then, when you're better, we'll see if one of my petticoats will fit you; you must be dressed more warmly." She felt the girl's thin skirt. "Why, she has nothing on. She must have caught cold. I'll take care of her. You are better now, aren't you? Holy Mother! Marianna, speak! You're better, aren't you?"
Marianna shook her head. She pretended to feel very wretched once more, and, rolling her eyes, she began to groan and lean so heavily against her mistress that they both stumbled.
Jendrek had to come to the rescue. They took the girl between them and dragged her into the house and up the stairs to bed.
When the man saw how kind his mistress was to Marianna, he stared at her in surprise. "What a good woman she must be," he thought to himself.
Whilst Mrs. Tiralla was rubbing the servant's icy-cold feet and hands she continued to repeat the same question, "You're better, aren't you?"
It touched Jendrek to see how anxious the good woman was. He thought that he would like to be ill as well; and he made up his mind that he would [Pg 52] groan like that next Monday and scream, "Poison, poison!" and lie on the ground and roll about. It must be very nice to have your cheek and forehead stroked by the mistress's soft hands, as she was stroking Marianna's, and to see how she worried about you. And then she had run into the kitchen and brought her a cup full of good, warm tea, and had held it to her lips and said, "Drink, dear, drink."
But Marianna did not want to drink. She almost knocked the cup out of her mistress's hand. And when the latter tried to persuade her in her soft voice, "Do drink, it'll do you good," she answered pertly, "I'll take precious good care I don't. I shall not drink it," and turned her face to the wall.
Why on earth wouldn't she drink that good cup of tea? The man would very much have liked to know that.
But Mrs. Tiralla did not ask why. The cup rattled in her hand, and as she stepped back from the bed she trembled so that she had to sit down on the nearest chair. She closed her eyes for a moment. But when she opened them again and saw the man's questioning looks, she gave him a sweet, almost timid smile, and said, "I'm not very strong. Such things affect me so. Oh, what a fright it gave me."
As they were going down the steep, dark stairs, she felt for his arm. "Lead me, Jendrek, I can't walk alone. Oh, poor Marianna!"
The winter was long in Starydwor, and the winter was the season of the year which Mrs. Tiralla liked least, for her husband would spend almost the whole day at home. He grew more and more lazy; he would not even go out shooting. "Why should I shoot hares?" he would say. "I can buy them very cheaply; any 'komornik' will kill one for me. I would much rather stop at home with Sophia."
Beautiful Mrs. Tiralla had grown thin during the course of the winter, "as slender as a fairy," said Mr. Schmielke, the tax-collector. The gentry used to meet at the inn every evening and discuss the most important events of the day; and as nothing much happened in Starawieś, Gradewitz, and neighbourhood, they would speak of Mrs. Tiralla. This they did rather often, for the men considered her the most interesting topic of conversation in Starawieś, Gradewitz, and the neighbourhood.
"By Jove, how beautiful that woman is!" some one would exclaim; and then another would add, "What a pity that that old fool has got her."
"There's nothing to be done," sighed the tax-collector, who had served in the guards at Potsdam, and had always been accustomed to carry everything before him on account of his smartness. "Absolutely nothing to be done, gentlemen. I've already had a try; but, to tell you the truth, she has sent me to [Pg 54] the right about. Ah, the fair Sophia!" He stroked his moustache and tilted his chair as far back as he could, in order to look into the tap-room and wink at the clumsy little country-girl who was helping the landlord behind the bar.
Mr. Boehnke, the schoolmaster, was very much put out. There was this Prussian, who had fallen from the clouds into their loyal Polish district, and at once imagined that he could win the most beautiful woman for himself. But such a rose was not meant for a fellow like him—a fellow with no education worth speaking of, for he had been nothing but a noncommissioned officer. "Pray don't speak so loudly. Don't shout out the names like that!" he exclaimed, jumping up from his seat and closing the door into the tap-room.
It vexed him to think that his pale face had grown scarlet. This Schmielke was certainly held in high esteem by everybody, and of course it would not be wise to quarrel with a representative of the Prussian Government. Still, it was very impertinent of him even to think of Mrs. Tiralla, of that educated woman, the daughter of a schoolmaster, extremely impertinent. Really, you couldn't help laughing at it. And he gave an angry laugh.
"You seem to be enjoying yourselves here," said a voice at that moment; and, looking round in surprise, the men caught sight of a head covered with a mass of white hair, that stood up like bristles round an angular forehead, and a pair of lovely brown eyes. It was the priest who had opened the door softly and had stuck his head in. "Let me see, who are you all? Mr. Boehnke, dobri wieczor." He nodded somewhat condescendingly to the schoolmaster who had jumped up from his chair, and then gave a very friendly nod [Pg 55] to Mr. Schmielke, the tax-collector, who was leaning back in his tilted chair with two fingers thrust into the front of his uniform.
"How do?" said the tax-collector.
Zientek, who was a good Catholic, felt very much annoyed at his heretical friend Schmielke's off-hand behaviour. Zientek was a clerk at the post office in Gradewitz; but he enjoyed himself better in Starawieś, where he was not so well known, and often cycled over late in the evening. He had jumped up from his chair like the schoolmaster, although perhaps not quite so quickly, and had shaken hands with Father Szypulski, the priest.
Father Szypulski now stepped up to the table, for he saw that they were all good acquaintances, with whom he felt quite at home. He had been so lonely in his small study, where there was hardly room for so big and broad a man as he. He couldn't always be reading, and it was impossible to go to the neighbouring farmers for a game of cards, as the roads were at present in a frightful condition. He couldn't even get to his colleague in Gradewitz, which was only a few miles distant by the highroad. Besides, what would have been the good of it? They couldn't have gone to the hotel in the market-place, as there were always too many people about. Oh, there really were too many Germans amongst the settlers. And who would notice him going to the inn on such a snowy night if he took up his cassock? A few stupid peasants at the most, who would bend their heads so low when they greeted him as though their priest were a saint at least. And in the inn he would find human beings.
The priest no doubt felt that it was not quite the thing for him to sit in the inn, and that his superiors would have taken umbrage at it. But had he ever [Pg 56] taken more than he could stand? So far nobody had ever seen him the worse for drink. He reviewed one colleague after another in his mind; where was there one who had not behaved like other men? And why had they sent him to such a remote post? so rural, so primitive. His scruples were gradually being lulled to sleep in the snowy winter days, that were not even brightened by a faint gleam of light—he hardly ever caught a glimpse of a paper, besides papers were pernicious reading—in that monotonous silence, that was not even enlivened by the whistle of an engine, for the railway was on the other side of Gradewitz.
"What are you talking about, gentlemen?" inquired the priest in an interested voice; and he was soon in the midst of the conversation about Mrs. Tiralla. He was her father confessor. "A good little woman, an exceedingly nice little woman," he said in a laudatory tone.
"I had a fearful to-do with Tiralla the other day, your reverence," said Kranz of the gendarmerie, who was sitting at the end of the table stroking his fierce-looking, greyish moustache. "I felt quite sorry for the woman. I had to speak. I didn't think it could be possible, but I was told of it, and I found out for myself that it was true—Tiralla lets the day-labourers kill hares for him. It makes no difference to him whether they're on other people's property or not. I taxed him with it, and he didn't even deny it, he simply laughed. But his wife turned as red as fire, she felt so ashamed of him. 'It's a disgrace!' she cried, and looked at me with eyes full of tears. And then she gave him a real, good scolding. 'Haven't I told you again and again that if you want to eat hares, you're to shoot them yourself? If you don't [Pg 57] do so I'll throw them out of the kitchen next time you bring them, I swear I will.'"
"Bravo!" they all shouted. "Splendid!" There was only one more thing she ought to have done and that was soundly to box his ears, the scoundrel. They were so furious with him that they seemed entirely to forget that they lived in a country where hares are no man's property, so to speak, and are often killed by passers-by as they gambol about fearlessly in the immense, lonely fields that extend for miles.
The younger men's eyes sparkled as they listened. The tax-collector, the clerk from the post office, and the schoolmaster were none of them thirty. The forester, who was sitting next to the clerk from the post office, and Jokisch, the inspector of the settlement near the lake, could also be reckoned amongst her admirers, although they were married men; and the gendarme was still a good-looking fellow, in spite of his greyish moustache and an almost grown-up daughter.