ELSE C. M. BENECKE
This selection of Tales by Polish authors was first published in 'The World's Classics' in 1921 and reprinted in 1928, 1942, and 1944.
THE OUTPOST. By BOLESLAW PRUS
A PINCH or SALT. By ADAM SZYMANSKI
KOWALSKI THE CARPENTER. By ADAM SZYMANSKI
FOREBODINGS. By STEFAN ZERKOMSKI
A POLISH SCENE. By WLADYSLAW ST. REYMONT
DEATH. By WLADYSLAW ST. REYMONT
THE SENTENCE. By J. KADEN-BANDROWSKI
'P.P.C.' By MME KYCIER-NALKOWSKA
My friend the late Miss Else C. M. Benecke left a number of Polish stories in rough translation, and I am carrying out her wishes in editing them and handing them over to English readers. In spite of failing health during the last years of her life, she worked hard at translations from this beautiful but difficult language, and the two volumes, Tales by Polish Authors and More Tales by Polish Authors, published by Mr. Basil Blackwell at Oxford, were among the first attempts to make modern Polish fiction known in this country. In both these volumes I collaborated with her.
England is fortunate in counting Joseph Conrad among her own novelists; although a Pole by birth he is one of the greatest masters of English style. The Polish authors who have written in their own language have perhaps been most successful in the short story. Often it is so slight that it can hardly be called a story, but each of these sketches conveys a distinct atmosphere of the country and the people, and shows the individuality of each writer. The unhappy state of Poland for more than 150 years has placed political and social problems in the foreground of Polish literature. Writers are therefore judged and appraised by their fellow-countrymen as much by their patriotism as by their literary and artistic merits.
Of the authors whose work is presented in this volume Prus (Aleksander Glowacki), the veteran of modern Polish novelists, is the one most loved by his own countrymen. His books are written partly with a moral object, as each deals with a social evil. But while he exposes the evil, his warm heart and strong sense of justice—combined with a sense of humour—make him fair and even generous to all.
The poignant appeal of Szymnski's stories lies in the fact that they are based on personal experiences. He was banished to Yakutsk in Siberia for six years when he was quite a young man and had barely finished his studies at the University of Warsaw, at a time when every profession of radicalism, however moderate, was punished severely by the Russian authorities. He died, a middle-aged man, during the War, after many years of literary and journalistic activity in the interest of his country. Neither he nor Prus lived to see Poland free and republican, an ideal for which they had striven.
Zeromski is a writer of intense feeling. If Prus's kindly and simple tales are the most beloved, Zeromski's more subtle psychological treatment of his subjects is the most admired, and he is said to mark an epoch in Polish fiction. In the two short sketches contained in this volume, as well as in most of his short stories and longer novels, the dominant note is human suffering.
Reymont, who is a more impersonal writer and more detached from his subject, is perhaps the most artistic among the authors of short stories. His volume entitled Peasants, from which the two sketches in this collection are taken, gives very powerful and realistic pictures of life in the villages.
Kaden-Bandrowski is a very favourite author in his own country, as many of his short stories deal with Polish life during the Great War. In the early part of the War he joined the Polish Legions which formed the nucleus of Pilsudski's army, and shared their varying fortunes. During the greater part of this time he edited a radical newspaper for his soldiers, in whom he took a great interest. The story, The Sentence, was translated by me from a French translation kindly made by the author.
Mme Rygier-Nalkowska, who, with Kaden-Bandrowski, belongs to the youngest group of Polish writers, is a strong feminist of courageous views, and a keen satirist of certain national and social conventions. The present volume only contains a short sketch—a personal experience of hers during the early part of the War. It would be considered a very daring thing for a Polish lady to venture voluntarily into the zone of the Russian army, but her little sketch shows the individual Russian to be as human as any other soldier. This sketch and the first of Reymont's have been translated by Mr. Joseph Solomon, whose knowledge of Slavonic languages makes him a most valuable co-operator.
My share in the work has been to put Miss Benecke's literal translation into a form suitable for publication, and to get into touch with the authors or their representatives, to whom I would now tender my grateful thanks for their courteous permission to issue this volume, viz. to Mme Glowacka, widow of 'Prus', to the sons of the late Mr. Szymnski, to MM. Zeromski, Reymont, Kaden-Bandrowski, and to Mme Rygier-Nalkowska, all of Warsaw.
The river Bialka springs from under a hill no bigger than a cottage; the water murmurs in its little hollow like a swarm of bees getting ready for their flight.
For the distance of fifteen miles the Bialka flows on level ground. Woods, villages, trees in the fields, crucifixes by the roadside show up clearly and become smaller and smaller as they recede into the distance. It is a bit of country like a round table on which human beings live like a butterfly covered by a blue flower. What man finds and what another leaves him he may eat, but he must not go too far or fly too high.
Fifteen to twenty miles farther to the south the country begins to change. The shallow banks of the Bialka rise and retreat from each other, the flat fields become undulating, the path leads ever more frequently and steeply up and down hill.
The plain has disappeared and given place to a ravine; you are surrounded by hills of the height of a many-storied house; all are covered with bushes; sometimes the ascent is steep, sometimes gradual. The first ravine leads into a second, wilder and narrower, thence into a succession of nine or ten. Cold and dampness cling to you when you walk through them; you climb one of the hills and find yourself surrounded by a network of forking and winding ravines.
A short distance from the river-banks the landscape is again quite different. The hills grow smaller and stand separate like great ant-hills. You have emerged from the country of ravines into the broad valley of the Bialka, and the bright sun shines full into your eyes.
If the earth is a table on which Providence has spread a banquet for creation, then the valley of the Bialka is a gigantic, long-shaped dish with upturned rim. In the winter this dish is white, but at other seasons it is like majolica, with forms severe and irregular, but beautiful. The Divine Potter has placed a field at the bottom of the dish and cut it through from north to south with the ribbon of the Bialka sparkling with waves of sapphire blue in the morning, crimson in the evening, golden at midday, and silver in moonlit nights.
When He had formed the bottom, the Great Potter shaped the rim, taking care that each side should possess an individual physiognomy.
The west bank is wild; the field touches the steep gravel hills, where a few scattered hawthorn bushes and dwarf birches grow. Patches of earth show here and there, as though the turf had been peeled. Even the hardiest plants eschew these patches, where instead of vegetation the surface presents clay and strata of sand, or else rock showing its teeth to the green field.
The east bank has a totally different character; it forms an amphitheatre with three tiers. The first tier above the field is of mould and contains a row of cottages surrounded by trees: this is the village. On the second tier, where the ground is clay, stands the manor-house, almost on top of the village, with which an avenue of old lime-trees connects it. To the right and left extend the manor-fields, large and rectangular, sown with wheat, rye, and peas, or else lying fallow. The sandy soil of the third tier is sown with rye or oats and fringed by the pine-forest, its contours showing black against the sky.
The northern ridge contains little hills standing singly. One of them is the highest in the neighbourhood and is crowned by a solitary pine. This hill, together with two others, is the property of the gospodarz The gospodarstwo is like a hermitage; it is a long way from the village and still farther from the manor-house.
[Footnote 1: Gospodarz: the owner of a small holding, as distinct from the villager, who owns no land and is simply an agricultural labourer. The word, which means host, master of the house, will be used throughout the book. Gospodyni: hostess, mistress of the holding. Gospodarstwo: the property.]
Slimak's cottage is by the roadside, the front door opening on to the road, the back door into the yard; the cowhouse and pigsty are under one roof, the barn, stable, and cart-shed forming the other three sides of the square courtyard.
The peasants chaff Slimak for living in exile like a Sibiriak. It is true, they say, that he lives nearer to the church, but on the other hand he has no one to open his mouth to.
[Footnote 1: Sibiriak: a person of European birth or extraction living in Siberia.]
However, his solitude is not complete. On a warm autumn day, when the white-coated gospodarz is ploughing on the hill with a pair of horses, you can see his wife and a girl, both in red petticoats, digging up potatoes.
Between the hills the thirteen-year-old Jendrek minds the cows and performs strange antics meanwhile to amuse himself. If you look more closely you will also find the eight-year-old Stasiek with hair as white as flax, who roams through the ravines or sits under the lonely pine on the hill and looks thoughtfully into the valley.
[Footnote 1: Polish spelling, Jedrek (pronounced as given, Jendrek, with the French sound of en): Andrew.]
[Footnote 2: Stasiek: diminutive of Stanislas.]
That gospodarstwo—a drop in the sea of human interest—was a small world in itself which had gone through various phases and had a history of its own.
For instance, there was the time when Josef Slimak had scarcely seven acres of land and only his wife in the cottage. Then there came two surprises, his wife bore him a son—Jendrek,—and as the result of the servituty his holding was increased by three acres.
[Footnote 1: Servituty are pieces of land which, on the abolition of serfdom, the landowners had to cede to the peasants formerly their serfs. The settlement was left to the discretion of the owners, and much bargaining and discontent on both sides resulted therefrom; the peasants had to pay percentage either in labour or in produce to the landowner.]
Both these circumstances created a great change in the gospodarz's life; he bought another cow and pig and occasionally hired a labourer.
Some years later his second son, Stasiek, was born. Then Slimakowa hired a woman by way of an experiment for half a year to help her with the work.
[Footnote 1: Slimakowa: Polish form for Mrs. Slimak.]
Sobieska stayed for nine months, then one night she escaped to the village, her longing for the public-house having become too strong. Her place was taken by 'Silly Zoska' for another six months. Slimakowa was always hoping that the work would grow less, and she would be able to dispense with a servant. However, 'Silly Zoska' stayed for six years, and when she went into service at the manor the work at the cottage had not grown less. So the gospodyni engaged a fifteen-year-old orphan, Magda, who preferred to go into service, although she had a cow, a bit of land, and half a cottage of her own. She said that her uncle beat her too much, and that her other relations only offered her the cold comfort that the more he applied the stick the better it would be for her.
[Footnote: Zoska: diminutive of Sophia.]
Up till then Slimak had chiefly done his own farm work and rarely hired a labourer. This still left him time to go to work at the manor with his horses, or to carry goods from the town for the Jews.
When, however, he was summoned more and more often to the manor, he found that the day-labourer was not sufficient, and began to look out for a permanent farm-hand.
One autumn day, after his wife had been rating him severely for not yet having found a farmhand, it chanced that Maciek Owczarz, whose foot had been crushed under a cart, came out of the hospital. The lame man's road led him past Slimak's cottage; tired and miserable he sat down on a stone by the gate and looked longingly into the entrance. The gospodyni was boiling potatoes for the pigs, and the smell was so good, as the little puffs of steam spread along the highroad, that it went into the very pit of Maciek's stomach. He sat there in fascination, unable to move.
[Footnote 1: Pronunciation approximately: Ovcharge. Maciek (pron. Machik): Matthew.]
'Is that you, Owczarz?' Slimakowa asked, hardly recognizing the poor wretch in his rags.
'Indeed, it is I,' the man answered miserably.
'They said in the village that you had been killed.'
'I have been worse off than that; I have been in the hospital. I wish I had been left under the cart, I shouldn't be so hungry now.'
The gospodyni became thoughtful.
'If only one could be sure that you wouldn't die, you could stay here as our farm-hand.'
The poor fellow jumped up from his seat and walked to the door, dragging his foot.
'Why should I die?' he cried, 'I am quite well, and when I have a bit to eat I can do the work of two. Give me barszcz and I will chop up a cartload of wood for you. Try me for a week, and I will plough all those fields. I will serve you for old clothes and patched boots, so long as I have a shelter for the winter.'
[Footnote 1: Pronunciation approximately: barsht. The national dish of the peasants; it is made with beetroot and bread, tastes slightly sour, and is said to be delicious.]
Here Maciek paused, astonished at himself for having said so much, for he was silent by nature.
Slimakowa looked him up and down, gave him a bowl of barszcz and another of potatoes, and told him to wash in the river. When her husband came home in the evening Maciek was introduced to him as the farm-hand who had already chopped wood and fed the cattle.
Slimak listened in silence. As he was tenderhearted he said, after a pause:
'Well, stay with us, good man. It will be better for us and better for you. And if ever—God grant that may not happen—there should be no bread in the cottage at all, then you will be no worse off than you are to-day. Rest, and you will set about your work all right.'
Thus it came about that this new inmate was received into the cottage. He was quiet as a mouse, faithful as a dog, and industrious as a pair of horses, in spite of his lameness.
After that, with the exception of the yellow dog Burek, no additions were made to Slimak's household, neither children nor servants nor property. Life at the gospodarstwo went with perfect regularity. All the labour, anxiety, and hopes of these human beings centred in the one aim: daily bread. For this the girl carried in the firewood, or, singing and jumping, ran to the pit for potatoes. For this the gospodyni milked the cows at daybreak, baked bread, and moved her saucepans on and off the fire. For this Maciek, perspiring, dragged his lame leg after the plough and harrow, and Slimak, murmuring his morning-prayers, went at dawn to the manor-barn or drove into the town to deliver the corn which he had sold to the Jews.
For the same reason they worried when there was not enough snow on the rye in winter, or when they could not get enough fodder for the cattle; or prayed for rain in May and for fine weather at the end of June. On this account they would calculate after the harvest how much corn they would get out of a korzec, and what prices it would fetch. Like bees round a hive their thoughts swarmed round the question of daily bread. They never moved far from this subject, and to leave it aside altogether was impossible. They even said with pride that, as gentlemen were in the world to enjoy themselves and to order people about, so peasants existed for the purpose of feeding themselves and others.
[Footnote 1: A korzec is twelve hundred sheaves.]
It was April. After their dinner Slimak's household dispersed to their different occupations. The gospodyni, tying a red handkerchief round her head and a white linen one round her neck, ran down to the river. Stasiek followed her, looking at the clouds and observing to himself that they were different every day. Magda busied herself washing up the dinner things, singing 'Oh, da, da', louder and louder in proportion as the mistress went farther away. Jendrek began pushing Magda about, pulling the dog's tail and whistling penetratingly; finally he ran out with a spade into the orchard. Slimak sat by the stove. He was a man of medium height with a broad chest and powerful shoulders. He had a calm face, short moustache, and thick straight hair falling abundantly over his forehead and on to his neck. A red-glass stud set in brass shone in his sacking shirt. He rested the elbow of his left arm on his right fist and smoked a pipe, but when his eyes closed and his head fell too far forward, he righted himself and rested his right elbow on his left fist. He puffed out the grey smoke and dozed alternately, spitting now and then into the middle of the room or shifting his hands. When the pipestem began to twitter like a young sparrow, he knocked the bowl a few times against the bench, emptied the ashes, and poked his finger down. Yawning, he got up and laid the pipe on the shelf.
He glanced under his brows at Magda and shrugged his shoulders. The liveliness of the girl who skipped about while she was washing her dishes, roused a contemptuous compassion in him. He knew well what it felt like to have no desire for skipping about, and how great the weight of a man's head, hands, and feet can be when he has been hard at work.
He put on his thick hobnailed boots and a stiff sukmana, fastened a hard strap round his waist, and put on his high sheepskin cap. The heaviness in his limbs increased, and it came into his mind that it would be more suitable to be buried in a bundle of straw after a huge bowl of peeled barley-soup and another of cheese dumplings, than to go to work. But he put this thought aside, and went out slowly into the yard. In his snuff-coloured sukmana and black cap he looked like the stem of a pine, burnt at the top.
[Footnote 1: Sukmana, a long linen coat, often elaborately embroidered.]
The barn door was open, and by sheer perversity some bundles of straw were peeping out, luring Slimak to a doze. But he turned away his head and looked at one of the hills where he had sown oats that morning. He fancied the yellow grain in the furrows was looking frightened, as if trying in vain to hide from the sparrows that were picking it up.
'You will eat me up altogether,' Slimak muttered. With heavy steps he approached the shed, took out the two harrows, and led the chestnuts out of the stable; one was yawning and the other moved his lips, looking at Slimak and blinking his eyes, as if he thought: 'Would you not prefer to doze and not to drag us up the hill? Didn't we do enough work for you yesterday?' Slimak nodded, as if in answer, and drove off.
Seen from below, the thick-set man and the horses with heads hanging down, seemed to harrow the blue sky, moving a few hundred paces backward and forward. As often as they reached the edge of the sown field, a flight of sparrows rose up, twittering angrily, and flew over them like a cloud, then settled at the other end, shrieking continually in astonishment that earth should be poured on to such lovely grain.
'Silly fool! Silly fool! What a silly fool!' they cried.
'Bah!' murmured Slimak, cracking his whip at them, 'if I listened to you idlers, you and I would both starve under the fence. The beggars are playing the deuce here!'
Certainly Slimak got little encouragement in his labour. Not only that the sparrows noisily criticized his work, and the chestnuts scornfully whisked their tails under his nose, but the harrows also objected, and resisted at every little stone or clod of earth. The tired horses continually stumbled, and when Slimak cried 'Woa, my lads!' and they went on, the harrows again resisted and pulled them back. When the worried harrows moved on for a bit, stones got into the horses' feet or under his own shoes, or choked up, and even broke the teeth of the harrows. Even the ungrateful earth offered resistance.
'You are worse than a pig!' the man said angrily. 'If I took to scratching a pig's back with a horsecomb, it would lie down quietly and grunt with gratitude. But you are always bristling, as if I did you an injury!'
The sun took up the affronted earth's cause, and threw a great sheaf of light across the ashen-coloured field, where dark and yellow patches were visible.
'Look at that black patch,' said the sun, 'the hill was all black like that when your father sowed wheat on it. And now look at the yellow patch where the stony ground comes out from under the mould and will soon possess all your land.'
'But that is not my fault,' said Slimak.
'Not your fault?' whispered the earth; 'you yourself eat three times a day, but how often do you feed me? It is much if it is once in eight years. And then you think you give me a great deal, but a dog would starve on such fare. You know that you always grudge me the manure, shame on you!'
The penitent peasant hung his head.
'And you sleep twice in twenty-four hours unless your wife drives you to work, but how much rest do you give me? Once in ten years, and then your cattle trample upon me. So I am to be content with being harrowed? Just try giving no hay or litter to your cows, only scratch them and see whether they will give you milk. They will get ill, the slaughterer will have to be sent for, and even the Jew will give you nothing for their hides.'
'Oh dear, oh dear!' sighed the peasant, acknowledging that the earth was right. But no one pitied or comforted him—on the contrary! The west wind rose, and twining itself among the dry stalks on the field-paths, whistled:
'Look sharp, you'll catch it! I will bring such a deluge of rain that the remainder of the mould will be spurted on to the highroad or into the manor-fields. And though you should harrow with your own teeth, you shall get less and less comfort every year! I will make everything sterile!'
The wind was not threatening in vain. In Slimak's father's time ten korzy of sheaves an acre had been harvested here. Now he had to be thankful for seven, and what was going to happen in the future?
'That's a peasant's lot,' murmured Slimak, 'work, work, work, and from one difficulty you get into another. If only it could be otherwise, if only I could manage to have another cow and perhaps get that little meadow....'
His whip was pointed at the green field by the Bialka.
But the sparrows only twittered 'You fool!' and the earth groaned: 'You are starving me!'
He stopped the horses and looked around him to divert his thoughts.
Jendrek was digging between the cottage and the highroad, throwing stones at the birds now and then or singing out of tune:
'God grant you, God grant you That I may not find you. For else, my fair maid, You should open your gate.'
And Magda answered from within:
'Although I am poor And my mother was poor, I'll not at the gate Kiss you early or late.'
Slimak turned towards the river where his wife could be plainly seen in her white chemise and red skirt, bending over the water and beating the linen with a stick until the valley rang. Stasiek had already strayed farther towards the ravines. Sometimes he knelt down on the bank and gazed into the river, supported on his elbows. Slimak smiled.
'Peering again! What does he see down there?' he whispered.
Stasiek was his favourite, and struck him as an unusual child, who could see things that others did not see.
While Slimak cracked his whip and the horses went on, his thoughts were travelling in the direction of the desired field.
'How much land have I got?' he meditated, 'ten acres; if I had only sown six or seven every year and let the rest lie fallow, how could I have fed my hungry family? And the man, he eats as much as I do, though he is lame; and he has fifteen roubles wages besides. Magda eats less, but then she is lazy enough to make a dog howl. I'm lucky when they want me for work at the manor, or if a Jewess hires my horses to go for a drive, or my wife sells butter and eggs. And what is there saved when all is said and done? Perhaps fifty roubles in the whole year. When we were first married, a hundred did not astonish me. Manure the ground indeed! Let the squire take it into his head not to employ me, or not to sell me fodder, what then? I should have to drive the cattle to market and die of hunger.
'I am not as well off as Gryb or Lukasiak or Sarnecki. They live like gentlemen. One drives to church with his wife, the other wears a cap like a burgher, and the third would like to turn out the Wojt and wear the chain himself. But I have to say to myself, 'Be poor on ten acres and go and bow and scrape to the bailiff at the manor that he may remember you. Well, let it be as it is! Better be master on a square yard of your own than a beggar on another's large estate.' A cloud of dust was rising on the high-road beyond the river. Some one was coming towards the bridge from the manor-house, riding in a peculiar fashion. The wind blew from behind, but the dust was so thick that sometimes it travelled backwards. Occasionally horse and rider showed above it, but the next moment it whirled round and round them again, as if the road was raising a storm. Slimak shaded his eyes with his hand.
[Footnote 1: The designations Wojt and Soltys are derived from the German Vogt and Sdiultheiss. Their functions in the townships or villages are of a different kind; in small villages there may be only one of these functionaries, the Soltys. He is the representative of the Government, collects rates and taxes and requisitions horses for the army. The Wojt is head of the village, and magistrate. All legal matters would be referred to him.]
'What an odd way of riding? who can it be? not the squire, nor his coachman. He can't be a Catholic, not even a Jew; for although a Jew would bob up and down on the horse as he does, he would never make a horse go in that reckless way. It must be some crazy stranger.'
The rider had now come near enough for Slimak to see what he was like. He was slim and dressed in gentleman's clothes, consisting of a light suit and velvet jockey cap. He had eyeglasses on his nose and a cigar in his mouth, and he was carrying his riding whip under his arm, holding the reins in both hands between the horse's neck and his own beard, while he was shaking violently up and down; he hugged the saddle so tightly with his bow legs that his trousers were rucked up, showing his calves.
Anyone in the very least acquainted with equestrian matters could guess that this was the first time the rider had sat upon a horse, or that the horse had carried such a rider. At moments they seemed to be ambling along harmoniously, until the bobbing cavalier would lose his balance and tug at the reins; then the horse, which had a soft mouth, would turn sideways or stand still; the rider would then smack his lips, and if this had no effect he would fumble for the whip. The horse, guessing what was required, would start again, shaking him up and down until he looked like a rag doll badly sewn together.
All this did not upset his temper, for indeed, this was the first time the rider had realized the dearest wish of a lifetime, and he was enjoying himself to the full.
Sometimes the quiet but desperate horse would break into a gallop. Then the rider, keeping his balance by a miracle, would drop his bridle-fantasias and imagine himself a cavalry captain riding to the attack at the head of his squadron, until, unaccustomed to his rank of officer, he would perform some unexpected movement which made the horse suddenly stand still again, and would cause the gallant captain to hit his nose or his cigar against the neck of his steed.
He was, moreover, a democratic gentleman. When the horse took a fancy to trot towards the village instead of towards the bridge, a crowd of dogs and children ran after him with every sign of pleasure. Instead of annoyance a benevolent enjoyment would then take possession of him, for next to riding exercise he passionately loved the people, because they could manage horses. After a while, however, his role of cavalry captain would please him more, and after further performances with the reins, he succeeded in turning back towards the bridge. He evidently intended to ride through the length and breadth of the valley.
Slimak was still watching him.
'Eh, that must be the squire's brother-in-law, who was expected from Warsaw,' he said to himself, much amused; 'our squire chose a gracious little wife, and was not even very long about it; but he might have searched the length of the world for a brother-in-law like that! A bear would be a commoner sight in these parts than a man sitting a horse as he does! He looks as stupid as a cowherd—still, he is the squire's brother-in-law.'
While Slirnak was thus taking the measure of this friend of the people, the latter had reached the bridge; the noise of Slimakowa's stick had attracted his attention. He turned the horse towards the bridge-rail and craned his neck over the water; indeed, his slim figure and peaked jockey cap made him look uncommonly like a crane.
'What does he want now?' thought Slimak. The horseman was evidently asking Slimakowa a question, for she got up and raised her head. Slimak noticed for the first time that she was in the habit of tucking up her skirts very high, showing her bare knees.
'What the deuce does he want?' he repeated, objecting to the short skirt.
The cavalier rode off the bridge with no little difficulty and reined up beside the woman. Slimak was now watching breathlessly.
Suddenly the young man stretched out his hand towards Slimakowa's neck, but she raised her stick so threateningly that the scared horse started away at a gallop, and the rider was left clinging to his neck.
'Jagna! what are you doing?' shouted Slimak; 'that's the squire's brother-in-law, you fool!'
But the shout did not reach her, and the young man did not seem at all offended. He kissed his hand to Slimakowa and dug his heels into the horse, which threw up its head and started in the direction of the cottage at a sharp trot. But this time success did not attend the rider, his feet slipped out of the stirrups, and clutching his charger by the mane, he shouted: 'Stop, you devil!'
Jendrek heard the cry, clambered on to the gate, and seeing the strange performance, burst out laughing. The rider's jockey cap fell off. 'Pick up the cap, my boy,' the horseman called out in passing.
'Pick it up yourself,' laughed Jendrek, clapping his hands to excite the horse still more.
The father listened to the boy's answer speechless with astonishment, but he soon recovered himself.
'Jendrek, you young dog, give the gentleman his cap when he tells you!' he cried.
Jendrek took the jockey cap between two fingers, holding it in front of him and offering it to the rider when he had succeeded in stopping his horse.
'Thank you, thank you very much,' he said, no less amused than Jendrek himself.
'Jendrek, take off your cap to the gentleman at once,' called Slimak.
'Why should I take off my cap to everybody?' asked the lad saucily.
'Excellent, that's right!...' The young man seemed pleased. 'Wait, you shall have twenty kopeks for that; a free citizen should never humble himself before anybody.'
Slimak, by no means sharing the gentleman's democratic theories, advanced towards Jendrek with his cap in one hand and the whip in the other.
'Citizen!' cried the cavalier, 'I beg you not to beat the boy...do not crush his independent soul...do not...' he would have liked to have continued, but the horse, getting bored, started off again in the direction of the bridge. When he saw Slimakowa coming towards the cottage, he took off his dusty cap and called out:
'Madam, do not let him beat the boy!'
Jendrek had disappeared.
Slimak stood rooted to the spot, pondering upon this queer fish, who first was impertinent to his wife, then called her 'Madam', and himself 'Citizen', and praised Jendrek for his cheek.
He returned angrily to his horses.
'Woa, lads! what's the world coming to? A peasant's son won't take off his cap to a gentleman, and the gentleman praises him for it! He is the squire's brother-in-law—all the same, he must be a little wrong in his head. Soon there will be no gentlemen left, and then the peasants will have to die. Maybe when Jendrek grows up he will look after himself; he won't be a peasant, that's clear. Woa, lads!'
He imagined Jendrek in button-boots and a jockey cap, and he spat.
'Bah! so long as I am about, you won't dress like that, young dog! All the same I shall have to warm his latter end for him, or else he won't take his cap off to the squire next, and then I can go begging. It's the wife's fault, she is always spoiling him. There's nothing for it, I must give him a hiding.'
Again dust was rising on the road, this time in the direction of the plain. Slimak saw two forms, one tall, the other oblong; the oblong was walking behind the tall one and nodding its head.
'Who's sending a cow to market?' he thought, '... well, the boy must be thrashed...if only I could have another cow and that bit of field.'
He drove the horses down the hill towards the Bialka, where he caught sight of Stasiek, but could see nothing more of his farm or of the road. He was beginning to feel very tired; his feet seemed a heavy weight, but the weight of uncertainty was still greater, and he never got enough sleep. When his work was finished, he often had to drive off to the town.
'If I had another cow and that field,' he thought, 'I could sleep more.'
He had been meditating on this while harrowing over a fresh bit for half an hour, when he heard his wife calling from the hill:
'Do you know what has happened?' 'How should I know?'
'Is it a new tax?' anxiously crossed his mind.
'Magda's uncle has come, you know, that Grochowski....'
'If he wants to take the girl back—let him.'
'He has brought a cow and wants to sell her to Gryb for thirty-five paper roubles and a silver rouble for the halter. She is a lovely cow.'
'Let him sell her; what's that to do with me?'
'This much: that you are going to buy her,' said the woman firmly.
Slimak dropped his hand with the whip, bent his head forward, and looked at his wife. The proposal seemed monstrous.
'What's wrong with you?' he asked.
'Wrong with me?' She raised her voice. 'Can't I afford the cow? Gryb has bought his wife a new cart, and you grudge me the beasts? There are two cows in the shed; do you ever trouble about them? You wouldn't have a shirt to your back if it weren't for them.'
'Good Lord,' groaned the man, who was getting muddled by his wife's eloquence,' how am I to feed her? they won't sell me fodder from the manor.'
'Rent that field, and you will have fodder.'
'Fear God, Jagna! what are you saying? How am I to rent that field?'
'Go to the manor and ask the square; say you will pay up the rent in a year's time.'
'As God lives, the woman is mad! our beasts pull a little from that field now for nothing; I should be worse off, because I should have to pay both for the cow and for the field. I won't go to the squire.'
His wife came close up to him and looked into his eyes. 'You won't go?'
'I won't go.'
'Very well, then I will take what fodder there is and your horses may go to the devil; but I won't let that cow go, I will buy her!'
'Then buy her.'
'Yes, I will buy her, but you have got to do the bargaining with Grochowski; I haven't the time, and I won't drink vodka with him.'
'Drink! bargain with him! you are mad about that cow!'
The quick-tempered woman shook her fist in his face.
'Josef, don't upset me when you yourself have nothing at all to propose. Listen! you are worrying every day that you haven't enough manure; you are always telling me that you want three beasts, and when the time comes, you won't buy them. The two cows you have cost you nothing and bring you in produce, the third would be clear gain. Listen.... I tell you, listen! Finish your work, then come indoors and bargain for the cow; if not, I'll have nothing more to do with you.'
She turned her back and went off.
The man put his hands to his head.
'God bless me, what a woman!' he groaned, 'how can I, poor devil, rent that field? She persists in having the cow, and makes a fuss, and it doesn't matter what you say, you may as well talk to a wall. Why was I ever born? everything is against me. Woa, lads!'
He fancied that the earth and the wind were laughing at him again:
'You'll pay the thirty-five paper roubles and the silver rouble for the halter! Week after week, month after month you have been putting by your money, and to-day you'll spend it all as if you were cracking a nut. You will swell Grochowski's pockets and your own pouch will be empty. You will wait in fear and uncertainty at the manor and bow to the bailiff when it pleases him to give you the receipt for your rent!...
'Perhaps the squire won't even let me have the field.'
'Don't talk nonsense!' twittered the sparrows; 'you know quite well that he'll let you have it.'
'Oh yes, he'll let me have it,' he retorted hotly, 'for my good money. I would rather bear a severe pain than waste money on such a foolish thing.'
The sun was low by the time Slimak had finished his last bit of harrowing near the highroad. At the moment when he stopped he heard the new cow low. Her voice pleased him and softened his heart a little.
'Three cows is more than two,' he thought, 'people will respect me more. But the money... ah well, it's all my own fault!'
He remembered how many times he had said that he must have another cow and that field, and had boasted to his wife that people had encouraged him to carve his own farm implements, because he was so clever at it.
She had listened patiently for two or three years; now at last she took things into her own hands and told him to buy the cow and rent the field at once. Merciful Jesu! what a hard woman! What would she drive him to next? He would really have to put up sheds and make farm carts!
Intelligent and even ingenious as Slimak was, he never dared to do anything fresh unless driven to it. He understood his farm work thoroughly, he could even mend the thrashing-machine at the manor-house, and he kept everything in his head, beginning with the rotation of crops on his land. Yet his mind lacked that fine thread which joins the project to the accomplishment. Instead of this the sense of obedience was very strongly developed in him. The squire, the priest, the Wojt, his wife were all sent from God. He used to say:
'A peasant is in the world to carry out orders.'
The sun was sinking behind the hill crest when he drove his horses on to the highroad, and he was pondering on how he would begin his bargaining with Grochowski when he heard a guttural voice behind him, 'Heh! heh!'
Two men were standing on the highroad, one was grey-headed and clean-shaven, and wore a German peaked cap, the other young and tall, with a beard and a Polish cap. A two-horse vehicle was drawn up a little farther back.
'Is that your field?' the bearded man asked in an unpleasant voice.
'Stop, Fritz,' the elder interrupted him.
'What am I to stop for?' the other said angrily.
'Stop! Is this your land, gospodarz?' the grey-haired man asked very politely.
'Of course it's mine, who else should it belong to?'
Stasiek came running up from the field at that moment and looked at the strangers with a mixture of distrust and admiration.
'And is that your field?' the bearded one repeated.
'Stop, Fritz! Is it your field, gospodarz?' the old man corrected him.
'It's not mine; it belongs to the manor.'
'And whose is the hill with the pine?'
'Oh well, if you are going to interrupt all the time, father....'
'Stop... is the hill yours, gospodarz?'
'It's mine; no one else's.'
'There you are, Fritz,' the old man said in German; 'that's the very place for Wilhelm's windmill.'
'The reason why Wilhelm has not yet put up a windmill is not that there are no hills, but that he is a lazy fellow.'
'Don't be disagreeable, Fritz! Then those fields beyond the highroad and the ravines are not yours, gospodarz?'
'How should they be, when they belong to the manor?'
'Oh yes,' the bearded one interrupted impatiently; 'everyone knows that he sits here in the manor-fields like a hole in a bridge. The devil take the whole business.'
'Wait, Fritz! Do the manor-fields surround you on all sides, gospodarz?'
'Well, that will do,' said the younger man, drawing his father towards the carriage.
'God bless you, gospodarz,' said the elder, touching his cap.
'What a gossip you are, father! Wilhelm will never do anything; you may find him ever so many hills.'
'What do they want, daddy?' Stasiek asked suddenly.
'Ah, yes! true!'
Slimak was roused: 'Heh, sir!'
The older man looked round.
'What are you asking me all those questions for?'
'Because it pleases us to do so,' the younger man answered, pushing his father into the carriage.
'Farewell! we shall meet again!' cried the old man.
The carriage rolled away.
'What a crew they are on the highroad to-day, it's like a fair!' said Slimak.
'But who are those people, daddy?'
'Those? They must be Germans from Wolka, twelve miles from here.'
'Why did they ask so many questions about your land?'
'They are not the only ones to do that, child. This country pleases people so much that they come over here from a long way off; they come as far as the pine hill and then they go away again. That is all I know about them.'
He turned the horses homeward and was already forgetting the Germans. The cow and the field were engaging all his thoughts. Supposing he bought her! he would be able to manure the ground better, and he might even pay an old man to come to the cottage for the winter and teach his boys to read and write. What would the other peasants say to that? It would greatly improve his position; he would have a better place in church and at the inn, and with greater prosperity he would be able to take more rest.
Oh, for more rest! Slimak had never known hunger or cold, he had a good home and human affection, and he would have been quite happy if only his bones had not ached so much, and if he could have lain down or sat still to his heart's content.
Returning to the courtyard, Slimak let Maciek take the horses. He looked at the cow, which was tied to the fence. Despite the falling darkness he could see that she was a beautiful creature; she was white with black patches, had a small head, short horns and a large udder. He examined her and admitted that neither of his cows were as fine as this one.
He thought of leading her round the yard, but he suddenly felt as if he could not move another step, his arms seemed to be dropping from their joints and his legs were sinking. Until sunset a man can go on harrowing, but after sunset it is no good trying to do anything more. So he patted the cow instead of leading her about. She seemed to understand the situation, for she turned her head towards him and touched his hand with her wet mouth. Slimak was so overcome with emotion that he very nearly kissed her, as if she were a human being.
'I must buy her,' he muttered, forgetting even his tiredness.
The gospodyni stood in the door with a pail of dishwater for the cattle.
'Maciek,' she called, 'when the cow has had a drink, lead her to the cowshed. The Soltys will stay the night; the cow can't be left out of doors.'
'Well, what next?' asked Slimak.
'What has to be, has to be,' she replied. 'He wants the thirty-five roubles and the silver rouble for the halter—but,' she continued after a pause, 'truth is truth, she is worth it. I milked her, and though she had been on the road, she gave more milk than Lysa.'
'Have you asked him whether he won't come down a bit?'
The peasant again felt the weariness in all his limbs. Good God! how many hours of sleep would have to be sacrificed, before he could make another thirty-five roubles!
'Not likely! It's something that he will sell her to us at all; he keeps on saying he promised her to Gryb.'
Slimak scratched his head.
'Come, Josef, be friendly and drink vodka with him, then perhaps the Lord Jesus will give him reflection. But keep looking at me, and don't talk too much; you will see, it will turn out all right.'
Maciek led the cow to the shed; she looked about and whisked her tail so heartily that Slimak could not take his eyes off her.
'It's God's will,' he murmured. 'I'll bargain for her.'
He crossed himself at the door, but his heart was trembling in anticipation of all the difficulties.
His guest was sitting by the fire and admonishing Magda in fatherly fashion to be faithful and obedient to her master and mistress.
'If they order you into the water—jump into the water; if they order you into the fire—go into the fire; and if the mistress gives you a good hiding, kiss her hand and thank her, for I tell you: sacred is the hand that strikes....'
As he said this the red light of the fire fell upon him; he had raised his hand and looked like a preacher.
Magda fancied that the trembling shadow on the wall was repeating: 'Sacred is the hand that strikes!'
She wept copiously; she felt she was listening to a beautiful sermon, but at the same time blue stripes seemed to be swelling on her back at his words. Yet she listened without fear or regret, only with dim gratitude, mingled with recollections of her childhood.
The door opened and Slimak said:
'The Lord be praised.'
'In all eternity,' answered Grochowski. When he stood up, his head nearly touched the ceiling.
'May God repay you, Soltys, for coming to us,' said Slimak, shaking his hand.
'May God repay you for your kindness in receiving me.'
'And say at once, should you be uncomfortable.'
'Eh! I'm not half so comfortable at home, and it's not only to me but also to the cow that you are giving hospitality.'
'Praise God that you are satisfied.'
'I am doubly satisfied, because I see how well you are treating Magda. Magda! fall at your master's feet at once, for your father could not treat you better. And you, neighbour, don't spare the strap.'
'She's not a bad girl,' said Slimak.
Sobbing heartily the girl fell first at her uncle's feet, then at the gospodarz's, and then escaped into the passage. She hugged herself and still emitted great sobs; but her eyes were dry. She began calling softly in a mournful voice: 'Pig! pig! pig!' But the pigs had turned in for the night. Instead Jendrek and Stasiek with the dog Burek emerged from the twilight. Jendrek wanted to push her over, but she gave him a punch in the eye. The boys seized her by the arms, Burek followed, and shrieking and barking and inextricably entwined so that one could not tell which was child and which was dog, all four melted into the mists that were hanging over the meadows.
Sitting by the stove, the two gospodarze were talking.
'How is it you are getting rid of the cow?'
'You see, it's like this. That cow is not mine, it belongs to Magda, but my wife says she doesn't care about looking after somebody else's cow, and the shed is too small for ours as it is. I don't pay much attention to her usually, but it happens that there is a bit of land to be sold adjoining Magda's. Komara, to whom it belonged, has drunk himself to death. So I am thinking: I will sell the cow and buy the girl another acre—land is land.'
'That's true!' sighed Slimak.
'And as there will be new servituty, the girl will get even more.'
'How is that?' Slimak became interested.
'They will give you twice as much as you possess; I possess twenty-five acres, so I shall have fifty. How many have you got?'
'Then you will have twenty, and Magda will get another two and a half with her own.'
'Is it certain about the servituty?'
'Who can tell? some say it is, others laugh about it. But I am thinking I will buy this land while there is the chance, especially as my wife does not wish it.'
'Then what is the good of buying the land if you will shortly get it for nothing?'
'The truth is, as it's not my money I don't care how I spend it. If I were you I shouldn't be in a hurry to rent from the manor either; there is no harm in waiting. The wise man is never in a hurry.'
'No, the wise man goes slowly,' Slimak deliberated.
The gospodyni appeared at that moment with Maciek. They went into the alcove, drew two chairs and the cherrywood table into the middle of it, covered it with a cloth and placed a petroleum lamp without a chimney on it.
'Come, Soltys,' called the gospodyni,' you will have supper more comfortably in here.'
Maciek, with a broad smile, retired awkwardly behind the stove as the two gospodarze went into the alcove.
'What a beautiful room,' said Grochowski, looking round, 'plenty of holy pictures on the walls, a painted bed, a wooden floor and flowers in the windows. That must be your doing, gospodyni?'
'Why, yes,' said the woman, pleased, 'he is always at the manor or in the town and doesn't care about his home; it was all I could do to make him lay the floor. Be so kind as to sit near the stove, neighbour, I'll get supper.'
She poured out a large bowl of peeled barley soup and put it on the table, and a small one for Maciek.
'Eat in God's name, and if you want anything, say so.'
'But are not you going to sit down?'
'I always eat last with the children. Maciek, you may take your bowl.'
Maciek, grinning, took his portion and sat down on a bench opposite the alcove, so that he could see the Soltys and listen to human intercourse, for which he was longing. He looked contentedly from behind his steaming bowl at the table; the smoking lamp seemed to him the most brilliant illumination, and the wooden chairs the height of comfort. The sight of the Soltys, who was lolling back, filled him with reverence. Was it not he who had driven him to the recruiting-office when it was the time for the drawing of lots? who had ordered him to be taken to the hospital and told him he would come out completely cured? who collected the taxes and carried the largest banner at the processions and intoned 'Let us praise the Holy Virgin'? And now he, Maciek Owczarz, was sitting under one roof with this same Grochowski.
How comfortable he made himself! Maciek tried to lean back in the same fashion, but the scandalized wall pushed him forward, reminding him that he was not the Soltys. So although his back ached, he bent still lower and hid his feet in their torn boots under the bench. Why should he be comfortable? It was enough if the master and the Soltys were. He ate his soup and listened with both ears.
'What makes you take the cow to Gryb?' asked the gospodyni.
'Because he wants to buy her.'
'We might buy her ourselves.'
'Yes, that might be so,' put in Slimak; 'the girl is here, the cow should be here too.'
'That's right, isn't it, Maciek?' asked the woman.
'Oho, ho!' laughed Maciek, till the soup ran out of his spoon.
'What's true is true,' said Grochowski; 'even Gryb ought to understand that the cow ought to be where the girl is.'
'Then sell her to us,' Slimak said quickly.
Grochowski dropped his spoon on the table and his head on his chest. He reflected for a while, then he said in a tone of resignation:
'There's no help for it; as you are quite, decided I must sell you the cow.'
'But you'll take off something for us, won't you?' hastily added the woman in an ingratiating tone.
The Soltys reflected once more.
'You see, it's like this; if it were my cow I would come down. But she belongs to a poor orphan. How could I harm her? Give me thirty-five paper roubles and a silver rouble and the cow will be yours.'
'That's too much,' sighed Slimak.
'But she is worth it!' said the Soltys.
'Still, money sits in the chest and doesn't eat.'
'Neither will it give milk.'
'I should have to rent the field.'
'That will be cheaper than buying fodder.'
A long silence ensued, then Slimak said:
'Well, neighbour, say your last word.'
'I tell you, thirty-five paper roubles and a silver rouble. Gryb will be angry, but I'll do this for you.'
The gospodyni now cleared the bowl off the table and returned with a bottle of vodka, two glasses, and a smoked sausage on a plate.
'To your health, neighbour,' said Slimak, pouring out the vodka.
'Drink in God's name!'
They emptied the glasses and began to chew the dry sausage in silence. Maciek was so affected by the sight of the vodka that he folded his hands on his stomach. It struck him that those two must be feeling very happy, so he felt happy too.
'I really don't know whether to buy the cow or not,' said Slimak; 'your price has taken the wish from me.'
Grochowski moved uneasily on his chair.
'My dear friend,' he said, 'what am I to do? this is the orphan's affair. I have got to buy her land, if for no other reason but because it annoys my wife.'
'You won't give thirty-five roubles for an acre.'
'Land is getting dearer, because the Germans want to buy it.'
'Those who bought Wolka. They want other Germans to settle near here.'
'There were two Germans near my field asking me a lot of questions. I didn't know what they wanted.'
'There you are! they creep in. Directly one has settled, others come like ants after honey, and then the land gets dearer.'
'Do they know anything about peasants' work?'
'Rather! They make more profits than we who are born here. The Germans are clever; they have a lot of cattle, sow clover and carry on a trade in the winter. We can't compete with them.'
'I wonder what their religion is like? They talk to each other like Jews.'
'Their religion is better than the Jews',' the Soltys said, after reflecting; 'but what is not Catholic is nothing. They have churches with benches and an organ; but their priests are married and go about in overcoats, and where the blessed Host ought to be on the altar they have a crucifix, like ours in the porch.'
'That's not as good as our religion.'
'Why!' said Grochowski, 'they don't even pray to the Blessed Mother.'
The gospodyni crossed herself.
'It's odd that the Merciful God should bless such people with prosperity. Drink, neighbour!'
'To your health! Why should God not bless them, when they have a lot of cattle? That's at the bottom of all prosperity.'
Slimak became pensive and suddenly struck his fist on the table.
'Neighbour,' he cried, raising his voice, 'sell me the cow!'
'I will sell her to you,' cried Grochowski, also striking the table.
'I'll give you...thirty-one roubles...as I love you.' Grochowski embraced him.
'Brother...give me...thirty...and four paper roubles and a silver rouble for the halter.'
The tired children cautiously stole into the room; the gospodyni poured out some soup for them and told them to sit in the corner and be quiet. And quiet they were, except at one moment when Stasiek fell off the bench and his mother slapped Jendrek for it. Maciek dozed, dreaming that he was drinking vodka. He felt the liquor going to his head and fancied himself sitting by the Soltys and embracing him. The fumes of the vodka and the lamp were filling the room. Slimak and Grochowski moved closer together.
'Neighbour...Soltys,' said Slimak, striking the table again. 'I'll give you whatever you wish, your word is worth more than money to me, for you are the cleverest man in the parish. The Wojt is a pig...you are more to me than the Wojt or even the Government Inspector, for you are cleverer than they are...devil take me!'
They fell on each other's shoulders and Grochowski wept.
'Josef, brother,...don't call me Soltys but brother...for we are brothers!'
'Wojciek...Soltys...say how much you want for the cow. I'll give it you, I'll rip myself open to give it you...thirty-five paper roubles and a silver rouble.'
'Oh dear, oh dear!' wailed the gospodyni. 'Weren't you letting the cow go for thirty-three roubles just now, Soltys?'
Grochowski raised his tearful eyes first to her, then to Slimak.
'Was I?... Josef...brother...I'll give you the cow for thirty-three roubles. Take her! let the orphan starve, so long as you, my brother, get a prime cow.'
Slimate beat a tattoo on the table.
'Am I to cheat the orphan? I won't; I'll give you thirty-five....'
'What are you doing, you fool?' his wife interrupted him.
'Yes, don't be foolish,' Grochowski supported her. 'You have entertained me so finely that I'll give you the cow for thirty-three roubles. Amen! that's my last word.'
'I won't!' shouted Slimak. 'Am I a Jew that I should be paid for hospitality?'
'Josef!' his wife said warningly.
'Go away, woman!' he cried, getting up with difficulty; 'I'll teach you to mix yourself up in my affairs.'
He suddenly fell into the embrace of the weeping Grochowski.
'Thirty-three...' sobbed the Soltys; 'may I not burn in hell!'
'Josef,' his wife said, 'you must respect your guest; he is older than you, and he is Soltys. Maciek, help me to get them into the barn.'
'I'll go by myself,' roared Slimak.
'Thirty-three roubles...' groaned Grochowski, 'chop me to bits, but I won't take a grosz more.... I am a Judas.... I wanted to cheat you. I said I was taking the cow to Gryb...but I was bringing her to you...for you are my brother....'
They linked arms and made for the window. Maciek opened the door into the passage, and after several false starts they reached the courtyard. The gospodyni took a lantern, rug and pillow, and followed them. When she reached the yard she saw Grochowski kneeling and rubbing his eyes with his sukmana and Slimak lying on the manure heap. Maciek was standing over them.
'We must do something with them,' he said to the gospodyni; 'they've drunk a whole bottle of vodka.'
'Get up, you drunkard,' she cried, 'or I'll pour water over your head.'
'I'll pour it over you, I'll give you a whipping presently!' her husband shouted back at her.
Grochowski fell on his neck.
'Don't make a hell of your house, brother, or grief will come to us both.'
Maciek could not wonder enough at the changes wrought in men by vodka. Here was the Soltys, known in the whole parish as a hard man, crying like a child, and Slimak shouting like the bailiff and disobeying his wife.
'Come to the barn, Soltys,' said Slimakowa, taking him by one arm while Maciek took the other. He followed like a lamb, but while she was preparing his bed on the straw, he fell upon the threshing-floor and could not be moved by any manner of means.
'Go to bed, Maciek,' said the gospodyni; 'let that drunkard lie on the manure-heap, because he has been so disagreeable.'
Maciek obeyed and went to the stable. When all was quiet, he began for his amusement to pretend that he was drunk, and acted the part of Slimak or the Soltys in turns. He talked in a tearful voice like Grochowski: 'Don't make a hell of your house, brother...' and in order to make it more real he tried to make himself cry. At first he did not succeed, but when he remembered his foot, and that he was the most miserable creature, and the gospodyni hadn't even given him a glass of vodka, the tears ran freely from his eyes, until he too went to sleep.
About midnight Slimak awoke, cold and wet, for it had begun to rain. Gradually his aching head remembered the Soltys, the cow, the barley soup and the large bottle of vodka. What had become of the vodka? He was not quite certain on this point, but he was quite sure that the soup had disagreed with him.
'I always say you should not eat hot barley soup at night,' he groaned.
He was no longer in doubt whether or no he was lying on the manure-heap. Slowly he walked up to the cottage and hesitated on the doorstep; but the rain began to fall more heavily. He stood still in the passage and listened to Magda's snoring; then he cautiously opened the door of the room.
Stasiek lay on the bench under the window, breathing deeply. There was no sound from the alcove, and he realized that his wife was not asleep.
'Jagna, make room...' he tried to steady his voice, but he was seized with fear.
There was no answer.
'Be off with you, you tippler, and don't come near me.'
'Where am I to go?'
'To the manure-heap or the pigsty, that's your proper place. You threatened me with the whip! I'll take it out of you!'
'What's the use of talking like that, when nothing is wrong?' said Slimak, holding his aching head.
'Nothing wrong? You insisted on paying thirty-five paper roubles and a silver rouble when Grochowski was letting the cow go for thirty-three roubles. Nothing wrong, indeed! do three roubles mean nothing to you?'
Slimak crept to the bench where Stasiek lay and touched his feet.
'Is that you, daddy?' the boy asked, waking up.
'Yes, it's I.'
'What are you doing here?'
'I'm just sitting down; something is worrying me inside.'
The boy put his arms round his neck.
'I'm so glad you have come,' he said; 'those two Germans keep coming after me.'
'Those two by our field, the old one and the man with the beard. They don't say what they want, but they are walking on me.'
'Go to sleep, child; there are no Germans here.'
Stasiek pressed closer to him and began to chatter again:
'Isn't it true, daddy, that the water can see?'
'What should it see?'
'Everything—everything—the sky, the hills; it sees us when we follow the harrows.'
'Go to sleep. Don't talk nonsense.'
'It does, it does, daddy, I've watched it myself,' he whispered, going to sleep.
The room was too hot for Slimak; he dragged himself up and staggered to the barn, where he fell into a bundle of straw.
'But what I gave for the cow I gave for her,' he muttered in the direction of the sleeping Grochowski.
Slimakowa came to the barn early the next morning and called her husband. 'Are you going to be long idling there?'
'What's the matter?'
'It's time to go to the manor-house.'
'Have they sent for me?'
'Why should they send for you? You have got to go to them and see about the field.'
Slimak groaned, but came out on to the threshing-floor. His face was bloated, he looked ashamed of himself, and his hair was full of straw.
'Just look at him,' jeered his wife: 'his sukmana is dirty and wet, he hasn't taken off his boots all night, and he scowls like a brigand. You are more fit for a scarecrow in a flaxfield than for talking to the squire. Change your clothes and go.'
She returned to the cowshed, and a weight fell off Slimak's mind that the matter had ended there. He had expected to be jeered at till the afternoon. He came out into the yard and looked round. The sun was high, the ground had dried after the rain; the wind from the ravines brought the song of birds and a damp, cheerful smell; the fields had become green during the night. The sky looked as if it had been freshened up, and the cottage seemed whiter.
'A nice day,' he murmured, gaining courage, and went indoors to dress. He pulled the straw out of his hair and put on a clean shirt and new boots. He thought they did not look polished enough, so he took a piece of tallow and rubbed it well first over his hair, then over his boots. Then he stood in front of the glass and smiled contentedly at the brilliance he rejected from head to foot.
His wife came in at that moment and looked disdainfully at him.
'What have you been doing to your head? You stink of tallow miles off. You'd better comb your hair.'
Slimak, silently acknowledging the justice of the remark, took a thick comb from behind the looking-glass and smoothed his hair till it looked like polished glass, then he applied the soap to his neck so energetically that his fingers left large, dark streaks.
'Where is Grochowski?' he asked in a more cheerful voice, for the cold water had added to his good temper.
'He has gone.'
'What about the money?'
'I paid him, but he wouldn't take the thirty-three roubles; he said that Jesus Christ had lived in this world for thirty-three years, so it would not be right for him to take as much as that for the cow.'
'Very proper,' Slimak agreed, wishing to impress her with his theological knowledge, but she turned to the stove and took off a pot of hot barley soup. Offering it to him with an air of indifference: 'Don't talk so much,' she said. 'Put something hot inside you and go to the manor-house. But just try and bargain as you did with the Soltys and I shall have something to say to you.'
He sat humbly, eating his soup, and his wife took some money from the chest. 'Take these ten roubles,' she said, 'give them to the squire himself and promise to bring the rest to-morrow. But mind what he asks for the field, and kiss his hands, and embrace his and the lady's feet so that he may let you off at least three roubles. Will you remember?'
'Why shouldn't I remember?'
He was obviously repeating his wife's admonitions, for he suddenly stopped eating and tapped the table rhythmically with the spoon.
'Well, then, don't sit there and think, but put on your sukmana and go. And take the boys with you.'
'What for? They are to support you when you ask the squire, and Jendrek will tell me how you have bargained. Now do you know what for?'
'Women are a pest!' growled Slimak, when she had unfolded her carefully laid plans. 'Curse her, how she lords it over me! You can see that her father was a bailiff.'
He struggled into his sukmana, which was brand new and beautifully embroidered at the collar and pockets with coloured thread; put on a broad leather belt, tied the ten roubles up in a rag and slipped them into his sukmana. The children had long been ready, and at last they started.
They had no sooner gone than loneliness began to fill Slimakowa's heart. She went outside the gate and watched them; her husband, with his hands in his pockets, was strolling along the road, Jendrek on his right and Stasiek on his left. Presently Jendrek boxed Stasiek's ears and as a result he was walking on the left and Stasiek on the right. Then Slimak boxed both their ears, after which they were both walking on the left, Jendrek in the ditch, so that he could threaten his brother with his fist.
'Bless them, they always find some nice amusement for themselves,' she whispered, smiling, and went back to put on the dinner.
Having settled the misunderstanding between his sons, Slimak sang softly to himself:
'Your love is no courtier, my own heart's desire, He's riding a pony on his way to the squire.'
Then in a more melancholy strain:
'Oh dearie, dearie me This is great misery, What shall I do?...'
He sighed, and felt that no song could adequately express his anxiety. Would the squire let him have the field? They were just passing it; he was almost afraid to look at it, so beautiful and unattainable did it seem. All the fines he had had to pay for his cattle, all the squire's threats and admonitions came into his mind. It struck him that if the field lay farther off and produced sand instead of good grass, he would have a better chance.
'Eh, I don't care!' he cried, throwing up his head with an air of indifference; 'they've often asked me to take it.'
That was so, but it had been at times when he had not wanted it; now that he did, they would bargain hard, or not let him have it at all. Who could tell why that should be so? It was a law of nature that landlords and peasants were always at cross purposes.
He remembered how often he had charged too much for work done, or how often the gospodarze had refused to come to terms with the squire about rights of grazing or wood-gathering in the forests, and he felt contrite. Good Lord! how beautifully the squire had spoken to them: 'Let us help each other and live peaceably like good neighbours.'
And they had answered: 'What's the good of being neighbours? A nobleman is a nobleman and a peasant is a peasant. We should prefer peasants for neighbours and you would prefer noblemen.' Then the squire had cited: 'Remember, the runaway goat came back to the cart and said, "Put me in." But I shall say you nay.' And Gryb, in the name of them all, had answered: 'The goat will come, your honour, when you throw your forests open.'
The squire had said nothing, but his trembling moustaches had warned them that he would not forget that answer.
'I always told Gryb not to talk with a long tongue,' Slimak sighed. 'Now it is I who will have to suffer for his impudence.'
A new idea came into his head. Why should he not pay for the field in work instead of cash? The Squire might accept it, for he wasn't half a bad gentleman. It was true, the other gospodarze looked down upon him, because he was the only one who hired himself out for work; but whatever happened, the squire would always be the squire, and they the gospodarze. He hummed again, but under his breath, so that the boys should not hear him:
'The cuckoo cuckooed in the forest, Say the neighbours, I am the dullest.'
Suddenly he turned upon Stasiek, and wanted to know why he was dragging along as if he were being taken to jail, and didn't talk.
'I...I am wondering why we are going to the manor?'
'Don't you want to go?'
'No; I am afraid.'
'What is there to be afraid of?' snapped Slimak, but he himself was shivering.
'You see, my boy,' he continued, more kindly, 'we have bought the new cow from the Soltys and we shall want more hay, so I am going to ask the squire to let me rent the field.'
'I see....But, daddy, I am always wondering what the grass thinks when the cows chew it up.'
'What should it think? It doesn't think at all.'
'But, daddy, why shouldn't it think? When people are standing round the church in a crowd, they look like grass from a distance, all red and yellow, like flowers in a field. If some horrible cow came and lapped them up with her tongue, wouldn't they be able to think?'
'People would scream, but the grass says nothing.'
'It does say something! A dry stick cracks when you tread on it, and a fresh branch cries and clings to the tree when you tear it off, and the grass squeaks and holds on with its feet,...and...'
'Oh! you are always saying queer things,' interrupted his father; 'and you, Jendrek, are you glad that we are going to the manor-house?'
'Is it I who is going or you?' said Jendrek, shrugging his shoulders. 'I shouldn't go.'
'Well, what would you do?'
'I should take the hay and stack it in the yard; then let them come!'
'You would dare to cut the squire's hay?'
'How is it his? Has he sown the grass? or is the field near his house?'
'Don't you see, silly, that the meadow is his just as well as his other fields?'
'They are his, so long as no one takes them. Our land and our house were his once, now they are yours. Why should he be better off than we are? He does nothing, yet he has enough land for a hundred peasants.'
'He has it because he has it, because he is a gentleman.'
'Pooh! If you wore a coat, and your trousers outside your boots, you would be a gentleman; but for all that you wouldn't have the land.'
'You are stupid,' said Slimak, getting angry.
'I know I am stupid, that is because I can't read or write, but Jasiek Gryb can, and therefore he is clever, and he says there must be equality, and there will be when the peasants have taken the land from the nobility.'
'Jasiek had better leave off taking money from his father's chest before he disposes of other people's property! He might give mine to Maciek and take the squire's for himself, but he would never give his own away. Let it be as God has ordered.'
'Did God give the land to the squire?'
'God has ordered that there should not be equality in the world. A pine is tall, a hazel is low, the grass is still lower. Look at sensible dogs. When a pail of dish-water is brought out to them, the strongest drinks first, and the others stand by and lick their lips, although they know that he will take the best part; then they all take their turn. If they start quarrelling, they upset the pail and the strong get the better of the weak.
If people were to say to each other: Disgorge what you have swallowed, the strong would drive off the weak and leave them to starve.'
'But if God has given the land to the squire, how can they begin to distribute it to the people now?'
'They distribute it so that every one should get what is right for him, not that he should take what he likes.'
His son's amazing views added a new worry to Slimak's mind.
'The rascal! listening to people of that sort! he'll never make a peasant; it's a mercy he hasn't stolen yet.'
They were nearing the drive to the manor-house, and Slimak was walking more and more slowly; Stasiek looked more and more frightened, Jendrek alone kept his saucy air.
Through the dark branches of old lime-trees the roof and chimneys of the manor became visible. Suddenly two shots rang out.
'They are shooting!' cried Jendrek excitedly, and ran forward. Stasiek caught hold of his father's pocket. Slimak called Jendrek, who returned sulkily. They were now on the terrace, where the manor-fields stretched on either side. Lower down lay the village, still lower the field by the river, in front of them was the manor, with the outbuildings, enclosed by a railing.
'There! that's the manor-house,' said Slimak to Stasiek. 'Isn't it beautiful?'
'Which one is it?'
'Why! the one with pillars in front.'
Another shot rang out, and they saw a man in fanciful sportsman's dress.
'The horseman of yesterday,' cried Jendrek.
'Ah, that freak!' said Slimak, scrutinizing him with his head on one side; 'he'll bring me bad luck about the field.'
'He has a splendid gun,' cried Jendrek; 'but what is he shooting? There's nothing but sparrows here.'
'Perhaps he is shooting at us?' suggested Stasiek timidly.
'Why should he be shooting at us?' his father reassured him; 'shooting at people isn't allowed. It's true there is no knowing what a lunatic might do.'
The sportsman approached, loading his gun; the tattered remains of some sparrows hung from his bag.
'The Lord be praised,' said Slimak, taking off his cap.
'How do you do, citizen?' replied the sportsman, touching his jockey cap.
'What a lovely gun!' sighed Jendrek.
'Do you like it? Eh, wasn't it you who picked up my cap the other day? I am in your debt; here you are.' He handed Jendrek a twenty-kopek piece. 'Is that your father? Citizen, if you want to be friends with me, do not bow so low, and cover your head. It is time that these survivals of servitude should be forgotten; they can only do us both harm. Cover yourself, I beg you.'
Slimak tried to do as he was told, but his hand refused obedience.
'I feel awkward, sir, standing before you with my cap on,' he said.
'Oh, hang hereditary social differences!' exclaimed the young man, snatching the cap from Slimak's hands and putting it on his head.
'Hang it all!' thought the peasant, unable to follow the democrat's intentions.
'What are you going to the manor for?' asked the latter. 'Have you come on business with my brother-in-law?'
'We want to beg a favour of the squire'—Slimak refrained with difficulty from bowing again—'that he should let us rent the field close to my property.'
'We've bought a new cow.'
'How much cattle have you?'
'The Lord Jesus possesses five tails in my gospodarstwo, two horses and three cows, not counting the pigs.'
'And have you much land?'
'I wish to God I had, but I have only ten acres, and those are growing more sterile every year.'
'That's because you don't understand agriculture. Ten acres is a large property; in other countries several families live comfortably on that; here it is not enough for one. But what can you expect if you sow nothing but rye?'
'What else should I sow, sir? Wheat doesn't do very well.'
'Vegetables, my friend, that does the trick! The market gardeners near Warsaw pay thirty or forty roubles an acre rent and do excellently well.'
Slimak hung his head. He was much perturbed, for he had arrived at the conclusion that the squire would not let him have the field, because he had so much land already, or that he would ask him thirty or forty roubles' rent. What other object could the young gentleman possibly have for saying, such strange things?
They were approaching the entrance to the garden.
'I see my sister is in the garden; my brother-in-law is sure to be about too. I will go and tell him of your business.'
Slimak bowed low, but inwardly he thought: 'May the pestilence take him! He is impertinent to my wife, stirs up the boy, and puts my cap on my head; but he wants to squeeze money out of me, all the same. I knew he would bring me bad luck.'
Sounds of an American organ which the squire was playing came from the house.
'Daddy, daddy, they are playing!' cried Stasiek in great excitement; he was flushed, and trembled with emotion, even Jendrek was affected. Slimak took off his cap and said a prayer for deliverance from the evil spell of the young gentleman.
When the organ stopped, they watched this same young gentleman talking to his sister in the garden.
'Look at the lady, dad,' said Jendrek; 'she is just like a horsefly, yellow with black spots, and thin in the waist and fat at the end.'
The democrat was putting Slimak's case before his sister, and complained of the signs of servility with which he met at every turn. He said they spoilt his temper.
'But what can I do?' said the lady.
'Go up to them and give them courage.'
'I like that!' she said. 'I arranged a treat for our farm-labourers' children to encourage them, and next day they plundered my peach trees. Go to them? I've done that too. I once went into a cottage where a child was ill, and my clothes smelt so strongly that I had to give them to my maid. No, thank you!'
'All the same, I beg you to do something for these people.'
Their conversation had been in French while they were approaching the railings.
'Oh, it's Slimak.' The lady raised her glasses. 'Well, my good man, my brother wants me to do something for you. Have you got a daughter?'
'I haven't, my lady,' said Slimak, kissing the hem of her dress.
'That's a pity, I might have taught her to do beadwork. Perhaps I could teach the boys to read?'
'They are wanted at home, my lady; the elder one is useful already, and the younger one looks after the pigs in the fields.'
'Do something for them yourself,' she said to her brother in French.
'What are they plotting against me?' thought Slimak.
The squire now came out and joined the group. Slimak began bowing again, Stasiek's eyes filled with tears, even Jendrek lost his self-assurance. The conversation reverted into French, and the democrat warmly supported Slimak's cause.
'All right, I'll let him have the field,' said the squire; 'then there will be an end to the trespassing; besides, he is the most honest man in the village.'
When Slimak's suspense had become so acute that he had thoughts of returning home without having settled the business, the squire said:
'So you want me to let you have the field by the river?'
'If you will be so kind, sir.'
'And if you will kindly take off three roubles,'
Jendrek added quickly. Slimak's blood ran cold; the squire exchanged glances with his wife.
'What does that mean?' he asked. 'From what am I to take off three roubles?'
Involuntarily Slimak's hand reached for his belt, but he recollected himself; he made up his mind in despair to tell the truth.
'If you please, sir, don't take any notice of that puppy; my wife has been at me for not bargaining well, and she told me to get you to take three roubles off the rent, and now this young scoundrel puts me to shame.'
'Mother told me to look after you.'
Slimak became absolutely tongue-tied, and the party on the other side of the railing were convulsed with laughter.
'Look,' said the squire in French, 'that is the peasant all over. He won't allow you to speak a word to his wife, but he can't do anything without her, and doesn't understand any business whatsoever without her explanations.'
'Lovely!' laughed his wife, 'now, if you did as I tell you, we should have left this dull place long ago and gone to Warsaw.'
'Don't make the peasant out to be an idiot,' remonstrated his brother-in-law.
'No need for me to do that; he is an idiot. Our peasants are all muscle and stomach; they leave reason and energy to their wives. Slimak is one of the most intelligent, yet I will bet you anything that I can immediately give you a proof of his being a donkey. Josef,' he said, turning to Slimak, 'your wife told you to drive a good bargain?'
'Certainly, sir, what is true is true.'
'Do you know what Lukasiak pays me yearly?'
'They say ten roubles.'
'Then you ought to pay twenty roubles for the two acres.'
'If you will be lenient, sir,' began Slimak.
'... and let me off three roubles,' completed the squire. Slimak looked confused.
'Very good, I will let you off three roubles; you shall pay me seventeen roubles yearly. Are you satisfied!'
Slimak bowed to the ground and thought: 'What is he up to? He is not bargaining!'
'Now, Slimak,' continued the squire, 'I will make you another proposal. Do you know what Gryb paid me for the two acres he bought?'
'Just so, and he paid for the surveyor and the lawyer. I will sell you those two acres for sixty roubles and let you off all expenses, so you would gain a clear twenty roubles against Gryb's bargain, But I make one condition, you must decide at once and without consulting your wife; to-morrow my conditions wouldn't be the same.'
Slimak's eyes blazed; he fancied he saw quite clearly now that there was a conspiracy against him.
'That's not a handsome thing to offer, sir,' he said, with a forced smile; 'you yourself consult with the lady and the young gentleman.' 'There you are! Isn't he a finished idiot?'
His brother-in-law tapped Slimak on the shoulder. 'Agree to it, my friend; you'll have the best of the bargain. Of course he agrees,' he said, turning to the squire.
'Well, Josef, will you buy it? Do you agree to my conditions?'
'I'm not such a fool,' thought Slimak, and aloud: 'It wouldn't be fair to buy it without my wife.'
'Very well, I'll let it to you. Give me your earnest-money and come for the receipt to-morrow. There you have the peasant, my democrat!'
Slimak paid the ten roubles and glared at the retreating party.
'Ah! you'd like to cheat a peasant, but he has got too much sense! It's true, then, what Grochowski said about the land-distribution. Sixty roubles for a field worth seventy, indeed!'
All the same he could not quite get rid of the thought that it might have been a straightforward offer. He felt hot all over and wanted to shout or run after the squire. At that moment the young man hastily turned back.
'Buy that field,' he said, quite out of breath; 'my brother-in-law would still consent if you asked him.'
In an instant Slimak's distrust returned.
'No, sir; it wouldn't be fair.'
'Cattle!' murmured the democrat, and turned his back. The bargain had disappeared.
'Let's go home, boys,' and under his breath: 'Damn the aristocracy!' When they were nearing their home, the boys ran on ahead, for they were hungry.
'What is this Jendrek tells me? They wanted to sell you the land for sixty roubles?'
'That is so,' he replied, rather frightened; 'they are afraid of the new land-distributions. They are clever too! They knew all about my business beforehand, and the squire had set his brother-in-law on to me.'
'What! that fellow who spoke to me by the river?'
'That same fool. He gave Jendrek twenty kopeks and put my cap on my head, and he told me ten acres was a fortune.'
'A fortune? His brother-in-law has a thousand and says he hasn't enough! You did quite right not to buy the field; there is something shady about that business.'
But his wife's satisfaction did not completely reassure Slimak; he was wretchedly in doubt. His dinner gave him no pleasure, and he strolled about the house without knowing what to do. When his irritation had reached its climax, a happy thought struck him.
'Come here, Jendrek,' he said, unbuckling his belt.
'Oh, daddy, don't,' wailed the boy, although he had been prepared for the last two hours.
'You won't escape it this time; lie down on the bench. You've been laughing at the young gentleman and even making fun of the squire.'
Stasiek, in tears, embraced his father's knees, Magda ran out of the room, Jendrek howled.
'I tell you, lie down! I'll teach you to run about with that scoundrel of a Jasiek!'
At that moment Slimakowa tapped at the window. 'Josef, come quick, something has happened to the new cow, she's staggering.'
Slimak let go of Jendrek and ran to the cowshed. The three cows were standing quietly chewing the cud.
'It has passed off,' said the woman; 'but I tell you a minute ago she was staggering worse than you did yesterday.'
He examined the cow carefully, but could find nothing wrong with her.
Jendrek had meanwhile slipped away, his father's temper had cooled, and the matter ended as usual on these occasions.
It was the height of summer. The squire and his wife had gone away, and the villagers had forgotten all about them. New wool had begun to grow on the shorn sheep.
The sun was so hot that the clouds fled from the sky into the woods, and the ground protected itself with what it could find; with dust on the highroads, grass in the meadows, and heavy crops in the fields.
But human beings had to toil their hardest at this time. At the manor they were cutting clover and hoeing turnips; in the cottages the women were piling up the potatoes, while the old women were gathering mallows for cooling drinks and lime-blossoms against the ague. The priest spent all his days tracking and taking swarms of bees; Josel, the innkeeper, was making vinegar. The woods resounded with the voices of children picking berries.
The corn was getting ripe, and Slimak began to cut the rye the day after the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. He was in a hurry to get the work done in two or three days, lest the corn should drop out in the great heat, and also because he wanted to help with the harvesting at the manor.
Usually he, Maciek, and Jendrek worked together, alternately cutting and binding the sheaves. Slimakowa and Magda helped in the early morning and in the afternoon.
On the first day, while the five were working together, and had reached the top of the hill, Magda noticed some men showing against the dark background of the wood, and drew Slimakowa's attention to them. They all stopped work and looked.
'They must be peasants,' Maciek said; 'they are wearing white smocks.'
'They do not walk like peasants,' said Slimakowa.
'But they are wearing boots up to their knees,' said Slimak.
'Look! they are carrying poles,' Jendrek cried; 'and they are dragging a rope after them.'
'Ah, they must be surveyors. What can they be after?' reflected Slimak.
'Surely, they are taking a fresh survey; now, Josef, aren't you glad you did not buy that land?' asked his wife. They took up their work again, but did not get on very fast, for they could not resist throwing sidelong glances at the approaching men. It was now quite plain that they were not peasants, for they wore white coats and had black ribbons on their hats. Slimak's attention became so absorbed that he lagged behind, in the place which Magda usually occupied, instead of being at the head of the party. At last he cried:
'Jendrek, stop cutting; run and find out what they are doing, and if they are really measuring for a new land-distribution.'
Jendrek was off in a moment, and had soon reached the men. He forgot to come back. The little party watched him talk to the men for a few moments, and then becoming busy with the poles.
'I say!' cried Slimakowa, 'he is quite one of the party! Just look, how he is running along with the line, as if he had never done anything else in his life. He has never seen a book except in the Jew's shop window, and yet he can run better than any of them. I wish I had told him to put on his boots; they will never take him for the son of a gospodarz.'
She watched Jendrek with great pride until the party disappeared behind the line of the hill.
'Something will come of this,' said Slimak, 'either good or bad.'
'Why should it be bad?' asked his wife; 'they may add to our land; what do you think, Maciek?'
The farm labourer looked embarrassed when he was asked for his opinion, and pondered until the perspiration flowed from his head.