E-text prepared by Andrew Leader of polishwriting.net
WLADYSLAW S. REYMONT
Translated from the Polish by Edmund Obecny
Frontispiece by Frederick Dorr Steele
G. P. Putnam's Sons New York and London
The Knickerbocker press 1920
Copyright, 1920 by G. P. Putnam's Sons
The provincial actors of Poland are sometimes colloquially called "comedians," as distinguished from their more pretentious brethren of the metropolitan stage in Warsaw. The word, however, does not characterize a player of comedy parts. Indeed, the provincials, usually performing in open air theatres, play every conceivable role, and as in the case of Janina, the heroine of this story, the life of the Comedienne often embraces far more tragedy than comedy.
Wladyslaw Reymont is the most widely known of living Polish writers. The Academy of Science of Cracow nominated him for the Nobel Prize for Literature. He is the author of numerous novels dealing with various phases of everyday life in Poland, many of them translated into French, German, and Swedish. The Comedienne is the first of his works to appear in English.
Reymont himself was a peasant, rising from the bottom until to-day the light of his recognized genius shines in the very forefront of the Slavic intellectuals.
It is interesting to note that for several years the author was himself a "Comedian," traveling about what was then Russian Poland with a company of provincial players.
Bukowiec, a station on the Dombrowa railroad, lies in a beautiful spot. A winding line was cut among the beech and pine covered hills, and at the most level point, between a mighty hill towering above the woods with its bald and rocky summit, and a long narrow valley, glistening with pools and marshes, was placed the station. This two-story building of rough brick containing the quarters of the station-master and his assistant, a small wooden house at the side for the telegrapher and the minor employees, another similar one near the last switches for the watchman, three switch-houses at various points, and a freight-house were the only signs of human habitation.
Surrounding the station on all sides were the murmuring woods, while above, a strip of blue sky, slashed with gray clouds, extended like a wide-spreading roof.
The sun was veering toward the south and glowing ever brighter and warmer; the reddish slopes of the rocky hill, with its ragged summit gashed by spring freshets, were bathed in a flood of golden sunlight.
The calm of a spring afternoon diffused itself over all. The trees stood motionless without a murmur in their boughs. The sharp emerald leaves of the beeches drooped drowsily, as though lulled to sleep by the light, the warmth, and the silence. The twitter of birds sounded at rare intervals from the thickets, and only the cry of the water-fowls on the marshes and the somnolent hum of insects filled the air. Above the blue line of rails stretching in an endless chain of curves and zigzags, the warm air glowed with shifting hues of violet light.
Out of the office of the station-master came a short, squarely-built man with light, almost flaxen hair. He was dressed, or rather squeezed into a stylish surtout and held his hat in his hand while a workman helped him on with his overcoat.
The station-master stood before him, stroking his grayish beard with an automatic gesture and smiling in a friendly manner. He also was stocky, strongly-knit, and broad shouldered, and in his blue eyes, flashing jovially from beneath heavy eyebrows and a square forehead, there also gleamed determination and an unbending will. His straight nose, full lips, a certain contraction of the brows, and the sharp direct glance of his eyes, that seemed like a dagger-stroke—all these typified a violent nature.
"Good-bye, until to-morrow!" . . . said the blonde man merrily, extending his big hand in farewell.
"Good-bye! . . . Oh come, let me hug you. To-morrow we'll celebrate the big event with a good drink."
"I am a little afraid of that to-morrow."
"Courage, my boy! Don't fear, I give you my word that everything will turn out all right. Ill tell Jenka all about it immediately. You will come to us to-morrow for dinner, propose to her, be accepted by her, in a month you will be married and we shall be neighbors . . . hey! I like you immensely, Mr. Andrew! I always dreamed of having such a son. Unfortunately I haven't any, but at least I'll have a son-in-law."
They kissed each other heartily; the younger jumped into a light mountain rig waiting near the platform and drove away at a swift pace along a narrow road leading through the wood. He glanced back, tipped his hat, sent a deeper bow to the windows of the second story, and disappeared in the shadow of the trees. After riding a little way, he sprang from the carriage, ordered the driver to go on, and continued his journey on foot by a short cut.
The station-master, as soon as his guest had vanished from sight, reentered his office and busied himself with his official correspondence. He was highly satisfied that Grzesikiewicz had asked him for his daughter's hand and he had promised her to him in the certainty that she would agree.
Grzesikiewicz, although not handsome, was sensible and very rich. The woods among which stood the station and a few neighboring farmhouses were the property of his father. The elder Grzesikiewicz was primarily a peasant, who had transformed himself from an innkeeper into a trader and had made a fabulous fortune by the sale of timber and cattle-fodder.
Many people in the neighborhood still remembered that the old man used to be called Grzesik in his youth. They often ridiculed him for it, but no one upbraided him for changing his name, for he did not pose as an aristocrat, nor did he assume an overbearing air toward others because of his wealth.
He was a peasant, and in spite of all changes remained a peasant to the very core. His son received a thorough education and now helped his father. Two years ago he had made the acquaintance of the station-master's daughter after her return from the academy at Kielce and had fallen violently in love with her. His father offered no opposition, but told him plainly to go ahead and marry if he wanted.
Andrew met the girl quite often, became ever more deeply enamored of her, but never dared to speak to her of his love. She liked him, but at the same time her attitude was so frank and straightforward that his intended words of endearment and confessions of love always froze upon his lips before he had half uttered them. He felt that she belonged to a higher breed of women, inaccessible to such a "churl" as he often frankly called himself; but precisely because of his lowly origin he loved her all the more intensely.
Finally, he decided to speak to her father about it.
Orlowski received him with open arms, and in his arbitrary way, without consulting his daughter, at once gave him his word that all would be well. Grzesikiewicz was therefore thinking that Janina would not refuse him, that she must have already spoken of the matter with her father.
"Why not!" he whispered to himself. He was young, wealthy, and well, he loved her so dearly. "In a month our marriage will take place," he added hurriedly and that thought filled him with such joy that he began to run swiftly through the woods, breaking branches off the trees, kicking the rotted stumps that were in his way, knocking off the heads of spring mushrooms, whistling and smiling. And he thought, too, how glad his mother would be to hear the news.
She was an old peasant woman, who with the exception of her dress had not changed in the least on account of her wealth. She thought of Janina as of a princess. Her one dream was to have for a daughter-in-law a real lady, an aristocrat whose beauty and high birth would dazzle her, for her husband and his money and the respect which the entire neighborhood showed him did not suffice her. She was always conscious of being a peasant and received all honors with a true peasant-like distrust.
"Andy!" she often said to her son. "Andy, I wish you would marry Miss Orlowska. That's what I call a real lady! When she looks at you, she makes you shudder with awe and wish to fall at her feet and beg some boon of her. . . . She must be very good for whenever she meets folks in the woods she greets them in God's name, chats with them, and pets the children . . . another would be incapable of that! Gentle birth will always out. I sent her a basket of mushrooms and when she met me she kissed my hand for it. And she is not lacking in wisdom. Ho! ho! she knows that I have a prize of a son. Andy, marry her. Hurry, and make hay while the sun shines!"
Andrew would usually laugh at his mother's prattle, kiss her hand, and promise her to settle at once everything according to her wishes.
"We will have a princess in our house and seat her in state in the parlor! Don't fear, Andy, I will not let her soil her hands with anything. I will wait upon her, serve her, hand her everything she needs; all she has to do is to read French books and play on the piano, for that is what a lady is for!" his mother would add.
And he was just as much of a peasant as she deep within himself; beneath the smooth veneer of the civilized and educated man seethed a primitive unbridled energy and the desire for a wife—a woman to rule him. This young Hercules, who, when he felt like it, could fling unaided into the wagon two-hundred pound sacks of wheat, and who often had to toil like a common laborer to quell with weariness the riotous tides that often rose in his healthy blood, unexhausted through dozens of generations dreamed of Janina and was vanquished by her beauty and sweetness.
He now rushed along through the woods like a whirlwind and then flew across the fields, all green with the first vigorous shoots of the spring wheat, to tell his mother of the happiness awaiting him. He knew that he would find her in her favorite room whose walls were adorned with three rows of holy pictures—in gilt frames for that was the only luxury that she allowed herself.
The station-master, in the meanwhile, finished writing his official report, signed it, made an entry in his journal, placed it in an envelope, addressed it to "the Expeditor of the Station of Bukowiec," and called: "Anthony!"
A servant appeared at the door.
"Take this to the dispatcher!" ordered Orlowski.
The servant took the letter without a word and with the solemnest mien in the world laid it upon a table on the other side of the window. The station-master arose, stretched himself, took off his red cap, and walked over to that table; then he put on an ordinary cap with a red border and with the greatest gravity opened the letter that he had written a moment ago. He read it, wrote on the other side a few lines in reply, again signing his name, and then addressed it to the "Local Station-Master" and had Anthony deliver it to himself.
All the officials of the railway knew his mania and made merry at his expense. There was no expediter in Bukowiec, hence he performed both functions, that of station-master and dispatcher but at two different tables.
As the station-master he was his own superior, so he often had moments of truly insane joy when, noticing some error in his accounts, or some omission in his duty as a dispatcher, he would indite a complaint against himself.
Everybody made fun of him, but he paid no attention and persisted in following his own way, saying in justification: "Order and system are the foundations of everything; if they are lacking, all else fails!"
Having finished his tasks, he locked all the drawers of his desk, glanced out on the platform, and went to his home. He entered not by way of the anteroom, but through the kitchen, for he had to know all that was going on. He peeped into the stove, gave the fire a jab with the poker, scolded the servant-girl because of some water spilled on the floor, and then proceeded to the dining-room.
"Where is Jenka?" he asked.
"Miss Janina will be here in a minute," answered Mrs. Krenska, a sort of housekeeper and duenna in one person, a pretty blonde with expressive features.
"What are you preparing for dinner?"
"The Director's favorite dish; chicken fricassee, sorrel soup, and cutlets."
"Extravagance! By God, what extravagance! Soup and one kind of meat is enough even for a king! You will ruin me!"
"But Mr. Director . . . I ordered this meal prepared especially for you, sir—"
"Bosh! You women have nothing in your heads but fricassees, sweets, and dainties. All that is bosh!"
"You judge us unfairly, sir; we generally economize more than men do."
"Aha! You economize so that you can later buy yourselves more fineries . . . I know, you needn't tell me."
Mrs. Krenska did not answer, but began to set the table for dinner.
Just then, Janina entered. She was a girl of about twenty-two, tall, well-formed, and broad-shouldered. Her features were not very regular; she had black eyes, a straight forehead, a trifle too broad, dark eyebrows strongly accented, a Roman nose, and full glowing lips. Her eyes had a deep expression indicating an introspective nature; her lips were tightly drawn together in what seemed to be a semblance of dignity or hidden temper. Two deep lines clouded her clear forehead. Gorgeous, wavy blonde hair, with a reddish tinge, crowned her small round head. Her amber-gold complexion had the mellowness of a ripe peach. There was something strange about her voice: an alto that at times dropped into a deep baritone of almost masculine accents.
She bowed her head to her father and seated herself on the opposite side of the table.
"Grzesikiewicz was here to see me to-day," said Orlowski slowly serving the soup, for he always presided over the meals.
Janina glanced at him calmly.
"He asked me for your hand, Jenka."
"What did you tell him, Mr. Director?" quickly interposed Mrs. Krenska.
"That is our affair," he answered sternly. "Our affair . . . I told him all would be well," he said, turning to Janina. "He will be here to-morrow for dinner and you can talk it over between yourselves."
"What's the use, father! Since you have told him that all would be well, you can receive him yourself to-morrow and tell him from me that everything is far from well. . . . I do not wish to speak with him. To-morrow I will go to Kielce!"
"Bosh! If you were not a crazy fool, you would understand what an excellent husband he would make for you! Even though Grzesikiewicz is a peasant he's worth more to you than a prince, for he wants you . . . and he wants you because he's a fool. He could afford to take his pick of the best. . . . You ought to be grateful to him for choosing you. He will propose to you to-morrow and in a month from now you will be Mrs. Grzesikiewicz."
"I will not be his wife! If he can get another, let him do so."
"I swear to God that you will be Mrs. Grzesikiewicz!"
"No! I will not have him or anyone else! I will not marry!"
"Fool!" he retorted brutally. "You will marry because you need a roof over your head, food and dress, and someone to look after you. . . . I don't intend to ruin myself completely for your sake . . . and when I am gone, what then?"
"I have my dower; I will get along without the aid of Grzesikiewicz or anyone like him. Aha, so your object in wanting to marry me is simply to provide for my support!" She regarded him defiantly.
"And what of it? For what else do women marry?" "They marry for love and marry those whom they love."
"You're a fool, I tell you once again," he shouted vehemently, helping himself to another portion of chicken. "Love is nothing but this sauce, you can eat the chicken just as well without it; sauce is nothing but an invention, a freak and a modern fad!"
"No self-respecting woman sells herself to the first man that comes along merely because he is capable of supporting her!"
"You're a fool. They all do it, they all sell themselves. Love is childish prattle and nonsense. Don't irritate me."
"It is not a question of irritating you, father, or whether love is nonsense or not; it is a question of my future which you dispose of as though it belonged to you. Already at the time that Zielenkiewicz proposed to me. I told you that I do not intend to marry at all."
"Zielenkiewicz is merely Zielenkiewicz, but Grzesikiewicz is a very lord, and what I call a man! He is kind-hearted, wise for did he not graduate from the academy at Dublany and as strong as a bull. A fellow who can master the wildest horse and who, when he struck a peasant in the face the other day, knocked out six of his teeth with one blow such a fellow is not good enough for you! I swear he is ideal, the highest of all ideals!"
"Yes, your ideal is an incomparable one; he'd make a good prize-fighter."
"You are as crazy as your mother was. Wait! Andrew will muzzle you and show you how such women are ruled. He will not spare the whip."
Janina violently shoved aside her chair, threw her spoon on the table, and left the room, slamming the door after her.
"Don't sit there gaping, but order the cutlets served for me," he shouted at Mrs. Krenska, who gazed after Janina with a sympathetic look.
She handed him the dish with a servile mien, whispering to him with a solicitous tone in her voice, "Mr. Director, you must not irritate yourself so, it is not good for your health."
"Such is my fate!" he drawled. "I can't even eat in peace, without having to listen to these everlasting squabbles."
He then began to air at length his grievances and complaints over Janina's stubbornness, her wilful character, and his continual troubles with her.
Mrs. Krenska obsequiously pretended to agree with him, and occasionally emphasized some detail. She complained discreetly that she also had to bear a great deal because of Janina, sighed deeply, and wheedled him at every opportunity. She brought in the coffee and arrack and poured it for him herself. While doing so she fawned upon him, touched his hands and arms, as though accidentally, lowered her eyes, and kept up a continual flirtation, trying to awaken some spark in him.
Orlowski's anger slowly abated, and having drunk his coffee, he ejaculated, "Thank you! I swear to God that you alone understand me. . . . You are a kind woman, Mrs. Krenska."
"Mr. Director, if I could only show you what I feel, what—" she faltered, dropping her eyes.
Orlowski pressed her hand and went to his own room for a nap.
Mrs. Krenska ordered the table cleared and afterwards, when she was alone, took up some sewing and sat near the window facing the station platform. Occasionally she would look up from her work and gaze at the woods, or at the long line of rails, but everything seemed deserted and silent. Finally, unable to sit still any longer, she arose and began to pace around the table with a soft, feline step, smiling and repeating to herself: "I will get him, I will get him! At last I will find a little rest in my life, my wanderings will come to an end!"
Scenes from the past floated before her memory: whole years of wandering with a company of provincial actors. Krenska had abandoned the theater because she managed to catch a young fellow who married her. She lived with him for two whole years . . . two years which she recalled with bitterness. Her husband was insanely jealous and frequently beat her.
At last he died and she was free, but she had no longer any desire to return to the theater. She shuddered at the thought of resuming that eternal pilgrimage from town to town and the everlasting poverty of a provincial actor's life. Moreover, she realized that she was growing old and homely. So she sold all her household furnishings, received a pension from the management to which her husband had belonged, and for half a year played the role of a widow. She was very eager to marry a second time and sedulously spread her nets, but all in vain, for her own temperament stood in the way. With money in her pocket, there awakened in her again the former actress with her careless and sporty disposition and craving for pleasure and enjoyment. Being still seductive, she was surrounded by a swarm of various admirers with whom she squandered all she had, together with the reputation which she had succeeded in establishing for herself with the aid of her husband.
Krenska had no abilities of any kind, but she possessed a great deal of cleverness, so, instead of resigning herself to despair when the last of her admirers had forsaken her, she inserted an advertisement in the Kielce Gazette reading: "Middle-aged widow of a government official desires position as a housekeeper to widower, or as a social secretary."
She did not have to wait long for results. Her advertisement was answered in person by Orlowski, who was badly in need of a house-keeper, for Janina was still attending school and he could not himself manage the servants. Krenska seemed so quiet, humble, and full of grief over the loss of her husband that he did not ask her any questions, but engaged her immediately.
Orlowski was a widower who possessed a good salary, a few thousand dollars in cash, and an only daughter—an absent daughter whom he detested. Krenska at first tried to turn the heads of the station officials, but very soon sized up the situation and immediately began playing a new role whereby she perseveringly strove to attain the last act: Matrimony.
Orlowski became used to her. She knew how to make herself indispensable and always to show that indispensability so skillfully that it did not offend.
Moreover, the gray autumn days and the long wintry evenings brought her nearer to her goal, for Orlowski, who was fifty-eight years old and had rheumatism, was always a maniac, but during his rheumatic attacks he would become a raving maniac. She alone knew how to mollify and manage him with her inherent cleverness, sharpened by many years of theatrical experience. There was only one obstacle in her way—Janina. Krenska realized that as long as Janina was at home she could accomplish nothing. She decided to wait and waited patiently.
Orlowski loved his daughter with hatred, that is, he loved her because he hated her. He hated her because she was the daughter of his wife, whose memory he violently cursed—his wife, who after two years of conjugal life, left him, because she could no longer endure his tyranny and eccentricities. He brought legal action against her and tried to force her to return to him, but their separation became a permanent one. He raved with anger, but his relentlessness, unexampled stubbornness, and insane pride prevented him from begging his wife to return, which she might have done, for she was a good woman. Her only failing was an illness that baffled all the provincial doctors. She had the soul of a mimosa, so sensitive that every tear, pain, or grief would cast her into despair. Moreover she had an abnormal fear of thunderstorms, showers, frogs, dark rooms, unlucky numbers, and all loud sounds; so this husband of hers was killing her with his brutality.
Within a few years after their separation she died of nervous prostration, leaving Janina, who was then ten years old. Orlowski immediately took her away from his wife's family by force.
An additional reason for his hatred of Janina was because she happened to be a girl. With his wild and violent disposition he wanted a son on whom he could exercise not only his fists, but also his everyday humor. He had dreamed of a son and fancied that he would be a big and half-wild fellow, energetic and as strong as an oak.
He immediately sent Janina to a boarding-school, seeing her only once a year during her vacation. She spent the Christmas and Easter holidays at her aunt's home.
For these vacations, which were now in their third year, he would wait impatiently, for he was weary of being alone at his remote station. And as soon as Janina arrived hostilities between them would begin.
Janina grew up rapidly, and her mental and physical development were of the best, but having been conceived, born, and reared in an environment of continual hatred and quarrels and nursed with the tears and complaints of her mother at her father's brutality, she naturally disliked him and feared his scorn. This developed in her secretiveness and resentment. She rebelled against his despotism and niggardliness.
Janina inherited a few thousand rubles from her mother, and her father told her plainly that the interest on that sum would have to suffice her, for he did not intend to give her a single kopeck. She attended a first-class boarding-school, but after paying her fees and, later, her expenses at the academy she had so little left for her immediate needs that she had to continually think of how to make ends meet and to feel ashamed because of her worn shoes and dresses.
In a few years her classmates began to fear her, even the teachers often gave way to her, for she had her father's violent character and brooked no restraint. She never wept nor complained, but she was ever ready to avenge her wrongs with her fists, irrespective of what might happen to her. At the same time she was always one of the brightest scholars in her class.
All sincerely disliked her, but had to grant her supremacy. She herself became conscious of her superiority over the throng of her classmates, who treated her with aloofness, laughed at her shabby dresses and shoes, and barred her from all intimacy with them. Later she paid them back with unrelenting vengeance.
There were times when Orlowski was proud of Janina and warmly defended her before his friends, for the whole neighborhood was shocked at her tomboyish adventures. She would tramp through the woods late at night and in all kinds of weather, alone, like a young wild-boar separated from the herd. She was not a bit ashamed of climbing up trees for birds' nests, nor of riding astride in horse-races with the peasant lads on the pasturage. To avoid her father she would stay away from home for whole days at a time, dreaming of her return to school, while at school she would again dream of returning to the solitude of her home.
Such was Janina up to about the eighteenth year of her life when she graduated from high school and returned home for good. In her outward life she quieted down, but inwardly she became even more restless than before.
With her friend, Helen Walder, ideally beautiful and day dreaming of the emancipation of woman, she had parted. Helen went to Paris to study science. Janina had no desire to go, for she didn't feel the need of any knowledge of an abstract nature. She yearned for something that would exert a more potent influence upon her temperament something that would absorb her whole being for all time.
Men, Janina avoided almost entirely, for they angered her with their impudence; the women bored her with their everlasting repetition of gossip, troubles, and intrigues. People in general seemed to keep aloof from her. All sorts of stories about her, more or less false, were circulated in the neighborhood.
She was a puzzle to all who knew her. Meanwhile, in her own soul she was waging a battle with her desires, to which she knew not how to give a definite form. She asked herself why she lived. She buried herself in books, but found no comfort there. She felt that she must find something that would absorb and thrill her entire being, felt that she would find it sooner or later, but in the meanwhile the agony of waiting almost drove her mad.
Zielenkiewicz, the owner of a heavily mortgaged village, proposed to her. Janina laughed outright at him and told him to his face that she did not intend to pay his debts with her dower.
She had reached her twenty-first year and was beginning to lose patience, when a commonplace occurrence decided her whole future.
In a nearby town an amateur theatrical was being arranged. Three one-act plays were selected and the parts had already been assigned, when there came a hitch: no one wanted to accept the role of Pawlowa in Blizinski's The March Bachelor.
The dramatic coach insisted on presenting this play, for he wanted to twit a certain neighbor with it, but none of the ladies would play the parts of Pawlowa or Eulalia.
Someone proposed that they request Janina Orlowska to take the part of Pawlowa, for they knew that she dared anything. She accepted it rather indifferently, and Mrs. Krenska, in whom memories of her histrionic past had suddenly awakened, induced Orlowski to announce that an amateur had also been found for the part of Eulalia.
The rehearsals lasted for about three months, for the cast of the players was changed several times—the usual fuss and confusion of provincial theaters where none of the ladies want to assume the part of an old, quarrelsome, or shady character, or that of a maid, but all wish to be heroines.
Krenska, whom Janina kept at a respectful distance from herself, never confiding anything to her nor asking her advice, found a good reason in the play for approaching her. She began to give her lessons in the art of acting, untiringly.
So absorbed did she become with her part, so deeply did she enter into the character, and so well did it fit her that she gave a very creditable presentation. She was every inch a peasant woman, a genuine Pawlowa, and received a clamorous ovation at the end of the play. This momentary triumph and the consciousness of her power filled her with a wild and unrestrained joy. It was with a feeling of intense regret that she saw the final curtain fall.
Krenska also created quite a furore. It was a role that she had often played with great success on the real stage. During the intermissions everyone was speaking only of her and of Janina.
"A comedienne! A born actress!" whispered the ladies, regarding Janina with a sort of contemptuous pity.
Orlowski, whom they thanked and congratulated for having so talented a daughter and companion, shrugged his shoulders. He was, however, satisfied, for he went behind the scenes, petted Janina, and kissed Krenska's hand.
"Good, good! . . . Nothing extraordinary, but at least I don't have to feel ashamed of you," was all the praise that he gave them.
After the performance Janina drew closer to Krenska and the latter, in a moment of weakness, betrayed the secret concerning her past life. She revealed to Janina a new realm, wondrous and alluring.
She listened with rapt attention to Krenska's accounts of the stage, her numerous appearances and triumphs, and the vivid life of an actor. As she related her experiences Krenska was herself carried away by enthusiasm and painted them in glowing colors; she no longer remembered the miseries of that life and held up only the brightest pictures to the gaze of the enraptured girl. She pulled out of her trunk faded and musty copies of roles she had once impersonated, read them to Janina and played them, stirred by memories of the past.
All this fascinated the girl and awoke in her certain strong desires, but it did not, as yet, absorb her; it was not, as yet, that mysterious "something" for which she had been waiting so long.
She began to read with great interest the theatrical criticisms and the details about actors in the newspapers. Finally, whether actuated by ennui or by an instinctive impulse, she bought a complete set of Shakespeare's works and, forthwith, was lost! She found that "something" for which she had sought so long; she found her hero, her aim, her ideal—it was the theater. She devoured Shakespeare with all the inherent intensity of her nature.
It would be difficult to epitomize the violent upheaval that now took place in Janina's soul, the wild soaring of her imagination, and the enlargement and expansion of her whole being. There swarmed about her a vast throng of characters evil, noble, base, petty, heroic, and struggling souls. There passed through her such tones and words, such overwhelming thoughts and emotions that she felt as though the whole universe was contained in her soul!
She became consumed with a desire for the theater and for unusual emotions. The winters seemed too warm for her, the snowfalls too light; the springs dragged along too slowly, the summers were too cool, the autumns too dry; all this she visioned in her imagination in far grander outlines. She wished to see the acme of beauty, the acme of evil, and every act magnified to titanic proportions.
Orlowski knew a little about her "disease," but he smiled at it in scorn.
"You comedienne!" he called her, scoffingly.
Krenska would add fuel to this fire, for she wished at any cost to see Janina leave home. She persuaded her of her talent and warmly praised the theatrical career.
Janina could not pluck up courage to take the decisive step. She feared those dark and vague presentiments and an unaccountable feeling of terror at times would seize upon her. She could not summon the necessary determination. A storm of some kind only could uproot her and carry her far away from home in the same way as it uprooted the trees and scattered them over the desolate fields. She was waiting now for some chance happening to cast her into the world. Krenska, in the meanwhile, kept her informed of the activities of the provincial theatrical companies. Janina made certain preparations and savings. Her father paid her regularly the interest on her inheritance and this enabled her in a year's time to lay aside about two hundred rubles.
Grzesikiewicz's proposal and her father's insistance on her marriage roused a stormy protest in her.
"No, no, no!" she repeated to herself, pacing excitedly up and down her room. "I will not marry!"
Janina had never contemplated matrimony seriously. At times the vision of a great, overwhelming love would gleam through her mind, and she would dream of it for a while; but of marriage she had never given a thought.
She even liked Grzesikiewicz, because he would never speak lightly to her about love, nor enact those amorous comedies to which other admirers had accustomed her. She liked him for the simplicity with which he would relate all that he had to suffer at school, how he was abused and humiliated as the son of a peasant and innkeeper and how he paid them back in peasant fashion with his fists. He would smile while relating this to her, but there was in his smile a trace of sorrow.
She opened the door of her father's room and was about to tell him abruptly and decisively that there was no need of Grzesikiewicz's coming, but Orlowski was already enjoying his after-dinner nap, seated in a big arm-chair with his feet propped against the window-sill. The sun was shining straight into his face which was almost entirely bronzed from sunburn.
"No, no, no! . . . Even though I have to run away from home, I will not marry!" she repeated to herself fiercely.
But immediately there followed this determination a feeling of womanly helplessness.
"I will go to my uncle's house. . . . Yes! . . . and from there I will go to the stage. No one can force me to stay here."
Thereupon, the blood would rush to her head with indignation and she would immediately gaze with courage into the future, determined to meet anything that might happen rather than submit.
She heard her father arise and then go to the window; she listened to the station bells, and to the jabbering of a few Jews who were boarding the train; she saw the red cap of her father, and the yellow striped cap of the telegrapher conversing through his window with some lady; she saw and heard all, but understood nothing, so absorbed was she in thought.
Krenska entered and in her habitual way began to circle around the table with quiet, cat-like motion before she spoke. Her face bore an expression of sympathy and there was tenderness in her voice.
The young woman glanced at her.
"No! I assure you that I will not!" she said with emphasis.
"Your father gave Grzesikiewicz his word of honor . . . he will demand unquestioning obedience . . . what will come of it?"
"No! I will not marry! . . . My father can retract his word; he cannot compel me—"
"Yes . . . but there will be an awful rumpus, an awful rumpus!"
"I have stood so many, I can stand some more."
"I am afraid that this one will not end so smoothly. Your father has such a dreadful temper. . . . I can't understand how you are able to bear as much as you do. . . . If I were in your place, Miss Janina, I know what I should do . . . and do it now, immediately!"
"I am anxious to know . . . give me your advice."
"First of all, I would leave home to avoid all this trouble before it begins. I would go to Warsaw."
"Well, and what would you do next?" asked Janina with trembling voice.
"I would join some theater and let happen what will!"
"Yes, that's a good idea, but . . . but—"
And she broke off, for the old helplessness and fears reasserted themselves. She sat silent without answering Krenska.
Janina put on a jacket and felt hat and taking a stick wandered off into the woods.
She climbed to the top of that rocky hill from which spread out below her a wide view of the woods, the villages beyond them, and an endless expanse of fields. She sat gazing about her for a while, but the calm that reigned all around, contrasted with the feeling of unquiet and foreboding in her own soul, as before an impending storm, gave her no peace.
At dusk Janina returned home. She did not speak either to her father or to Krenska but immediately after supper went to her own room and sat reading George Sand's Consuelo until a late hour.
During the night she was perturbed with unquiet dreams from which she started up every now and then, perspiring heavily, and awoke fully before dawn, unable to sleep any longer. She lay upon her bed with wide open eyes, gazing fixedly at the ceiling on which flickered a patch of light reflected from the station lamp. A train went roaring by and she listened for a long while to its rhythmic rumbling and clatter that seemed like a whole choir of voices and tones streaming in through her window.
At the farther end of the room, steeped in a twilight full of pale gleams that flickered like severed rays from a light long since extinguished, she seemed to see apparitions and vague outlines of mysterious scenes, figures, and sounds. Her wearied brain peopled the room with the phantoms of hallucination. She beheld, as it were, a vast edifice with a long row of columns that seemed to emerge from the dusk and take shape. In the morning she arose so worn out that she could scarcely stand on her feet.
She heard her father issuing orders for a sumptuous dinner and saw them making preparations. Krenska circled about her on tiptoe and smiled at her with a subtle, ironical smile that irritated Janina. She felt dazed with exhaustion and the storm that was brewing within her, and beheld everything with indifference, for her mind was continually dwelling on the impending battle with her father. She tried to read or occupy herself with something, but was too nervous.
She ran off to the woods, but immediately came back, for she knew not what to do there. A lethargy seemed to take hold of her and benumb her with an ever greater fear. Try as she would, Janina could not shake off this depressing mood.
She sat down at the piano and began mechanically to play scales, but the somnolent monotony of the tones only added to her nervousness. Later she played some of Chopin's Nocturnes, lingered over those mysterious tones that seemed like strains from another world, full of tears, pain, cries of anguish, and bleak despair; the radiance of cold moonlight nights, moans like the whisper of departing souls, the laughter of parting, the soft vibrations of subtle, sad life.
Suddenly, Janina stopped playing and burst into tears. She wept for a long time, not knowing why she wept she who since her mother's death had not shed a single tear.
For the first time in her life which up till now had been one continuous struggle, revolt, and protest she felt overcome by distress. There awakened in her an irresistible longing to share her sorrows with someone, a longing to confide to some sympathetic heart those bewildered thoughts and feelings, that unexplainable misery and fear. She yearned for sympathy, feeling that her distress would be smaller, her anguish less violent, her tears not so bitter, if she could open her heart before some sincere woman friend.
Krenska summoned her to dinner, announcing that Grzesikiewicz was already waiting.
She wiped away the traces of tears from her eyes, arranged her hair and went.
Grzesikiewicz kissed her hand and seated himself beside her at the table.
Orlowski was in a holiday humor and every now and then twitted Janina and hurled triumphant glances at her.
Grzesikiewicz was silent and uneasy; occasionally he would speak, but in such a low tone, Janina could scarcely hear what he said. Mrs. Krenska was plainly excited.
A gloomy atmosphere hung over them all. The dinner dragged wearily on. Orlowski at times became wrapt in thought, and would then knit his brows, angrily tug at his beard, and fling murderous glances at his daughter.
After dinner they went to the parlor. Black coffee and cognac were served. Orlowski quickly gulped down his coffee and left the room, kissing Janina on the forehead and growling some unintelligible remark as he departed.
They remained alone.
Janina kept looking out of the window. Grzesikiewicz, all flushed and flustered and unlike himself, began to say something, taking little swallows of coffee in between, until, finally, he drained it off at the gulp and shoved his cup and saucer aside so vigorously that they went tumbling over the table.
She laughed at his violence and embarrassment.
"At a moment like this a man could swallow a lamp without noticing it," he remarked.
"That would be quite a feat," she answered, again bursting into empty laughter.
"Are you laughing at me?" he asked uneasily.
"No, only the idea of swallowing a lamp seemed comical."
They relapsed into silence. Janina fidgeted with the window-shade, while Grzesikiewicz tore at his gloves and impulsively bit his moustache; he was literally shaking with emotion.
"It is so hard for me, so awfully hard!" he began, raising his eyes to her entreatingly.
"Why?" she queried tersely and evasively.
"Well, because . . . because . . . For God's sake, I can't stand it any longer! No, I can't endure this torment any longer, so I'll come right out with it: I love you, Miss Janina, and beg you for your hand," he cried aloud, at once sighing with immense relief. But immediately he struck his forehead with his hand and, taking Janina's hand, began anew:
"I have loved you ever so long, but feared to tell you. And now I don't know how to express it as I would like to. . . . I love you and beg you to be my wife. . . ."
He kissed her hand fervently and gazed at her with his blue, honest eyes burning with blind love. His lips twitched nervously and a pallor overspread his features.
Janina arose from her chair and, looking straight into his eyes, answered slowly and quietly: "I do not love you."
All her nervousness had vanished.
Grzesikiewicz recoiled violently, as though someone had struck him, as though he did not understand. He said with a trembling voice:
"Miss Janina . . . be my wife . . . I love you!"
"I do not love you . . . I cannot therefore marry you . . . I will not marry at all!" she answered in the same cold tone, but at the last word her voice wavered with an accent of pity for him.
"God!" cried Grzesikiewicz, holding his hand to his head. "What does it mean? . . . You will not marry! . . . You will not be my wife! . . . You do not love me!"
He threw himself impulsively on his knees before her, seized her hands, and, covering them with kisses, began, with what seemed almost tears of feverish terror, to entreat her fervently, humbly.
"You do not love me? . . . You will love me in time. I swear that I, my mother, and my father will be your slaves. I will wait if you wish . . . Say that in a year, or two, or even five, you will love me. . . . I will wait. . . . I swear to you that I will wait! But do not say no to me! For God's sake do not say that, for I shall go mad with despair! How can it be? You do not love me! . . . But I love you . . . we all love you . . . we cannot live without you! . . . no. . . . Your father told me that . . . that . . . and now . . . God! I will go crazy! What are you doing to me! What are you doing to me!"
Springing up from the floor he fairly cried aloud with pain.
Mechanically he pulled off his gloves, tore them to pieces and flung them on the floor, buttoned up his coat to the topmost button, and struggling to control himself said: "Farewell, Miss Janina. But always . . . everywhere . . . forever . . . I will . . ." he whispered with great effort, bowed his head and went toward the door.
"Andrew!" she called after him forcibly.
Grzesikiewicz turned back from the door.
"Andrew," she said in a pleading voice, "I do not love you, but I respect you. . . . I cannot marry you, I cannot . . . but I will always think of you as of a noble man. Surely you will understand that it would be a base thing for me to marry a man whom I do not love . . . I know that you detest falsehood and hypocrisy and so do I. Forgive me for hurting you, but I also suffer . . . I also am not happy oh no!"
"Janina if you would only . . . if you would only . . ."
She regarded him with such a sorrowful expression that he became silent. Then slowly he left the room.
Janina still sat there dazed, staring at the door through which he had gone, when Orlowski entered the room.
He had met Grzesikiewicz on the stairs and in his face had read what had happened.
Janina uttered a little cry of fear, so great a change had come over him. His face was ashen-gray, his eyes seemed to bulge from their sockets, his head swayed violently from side to side.
He seated himself near the table and with a quiet, smothered voice asked, "What did you tell Grzesikiewicz?"
"What I told you yesterday; that I do not love him and will not marry him!" she answered boldly, but she was startled at the seeming calm with which her father spoke.
"Why?" he queried sharply, as though he did not understand her.
"I told him that I do not love him and do not wish to marry at all. . . ."
"You are a fool! . . . a fool! . . . a fool!" he hissed at her through his tightly set teeth.
She regarded him calmly and all her old obstinacy returned.
"I said that you would marry him. I gave my word that you would marry him, and you will marry him!"
"I will not! . . . no one is able to force me!" she answered sullenly, looking with steady gaze into her father's eyes.
"I will drag you to the altar. I will compel you! . . . You must! . . ." he cried hoarsely.
"You will marry Grzesikiewicz, I tell you; I, your father, command you to do so! You will obey me immediately, or I will kill you!"
"Very well, kill me, if you want to, but I'll not obey you!"
"I will drive you out of this house!" he shouted.
"I will disown you!"
"Very well!" she answered with growing determination. Janina felt that with each word her heart was hardening with greater resolve.
"I'll drive you out . . . do you hear? . . . and even though you die of hunger, I never want to hear of you again!"
"Janina! I warn you, don't drive me to extremity. I beg you marry Grzesikiewicz, my daughter, my child! . . . Isn't it for your good? You have no one but me in the world and I am old . . . I will die . . . and you will remain alone without protection or support. . . . Janina, you have never loved me! . . . If you knew how unhappy I have been throughout my life, you would take pity on me!"
"No! . . . Never! . . ." she answered, unmoved even by his pleading.
"I ask you for the last time!" he shouted.
"For the last time I tell you no!" she flung back at him.
Orlowski hurled his chair to the floor with such force that it was shattered to pieces. He tore open the collar of his shirt, so violent was the paroxysm of fury that had seized him, and with the broken arm of the chair in his hand, he sprang at Janina to strike her, but the cold, almost scornful, expression of her face brought him to his senses.
"Get out of here!" he roared, pointing to the door, "get out! . . . Do you hear? I turn you out of my home forever! . . . You will never again pass this threshold while I live, for I will kill you like a mad dog and throw you out of the door! . . . I have no longer any daughter!"
"Very well, I will go . . ." she answered mechanically.
"I no longer have any daughter! Henceforth I don't want to know you or hear anything of you! . . . Go and perish . . . I will kill you! . . ." he shouted, rushing up and down the room like a madman.
His insane violence now burst out in full force. He rushed out of the house and from the window Janina saw him running toward the woods.
She sat silent, dumb, and as though turned to ice. She had expected everything, but never this. She burned with resentment but not a single tear clouded her eye. She gazed about her distractedly, for that hoarse cry still rang in her ears: "Get out of here! . . . get out!"
"I will go, I will go . . ." she whispered in a humble and broken voice through the tears that filled her heart, "I will go. . . ."
"God, my God! why am I so unhappy?" she cried after a while.
Krenska, who had heard all, approached her. With feigned tears in her eyes she began to comfort her, but Janina gently pushed her away. It was not that which she needed; not that kind of comforting.
"My father has driven me out . . . I must leave . . ." she said, marveling at her own words.
"But that is preposterous! . . . Surely your father can be placated. . . ."
"No . . . I will not stay here any longer. I have enough of this torment . . . enough . . . ."
"Are you going to your aunt's house?"
Janina was sunk in thought for a moment, but suddenly her gloomy face brightened with a flash of determination.
"I will go and join the theater. The die is cast! . . ."
Krenska glanced at her sharply.
"Come, help me pack my trunk. I will leave on the next train."
"The next passenger train does not go to Kielce."
"It doesn't matter. I will go to Strzemieszyce, and from there, by the Viennese line to Warsaw. . . ."
"If I were you, Janina, I'd think it over. . . . Later you may regret it. . . ."
"What's done can't be undone! . . ."
And without paying any further attention to Krenska's remarks, Janina began to pack. Her lingerie, her dresses, her books and notes, and various trifles she carefully folded away into her school-day trunk, as though she were returning from her vacation.
At the end she bade farewell to Krenska indifferently. Outwardly she appeared calm and cool, while a slight tremor of her lips alone, and an inner tremor that she could not still, were the only traces of the storm.
She ordered her things carried downstairs, and, having still an hour's time, she went to the woods.
"Forever . . ." she said in a subdued tone, as though addressing the trees that seemed to bend toward her with a mournful murmur and rustling of their leaves.
"Forever! . . ." she whispered, gazing at the crimson gleams of the setting sun that filtered through the tangled branches of the beeches and shone upon the ground.
The woods seemed wrapt in a great silence, as though they were listening to her words of final farewell and dumbly wondering how one who had been born and reared in their midst, who had lived with their life, who had dreamed so many dreams in their embracing silence, could bid farewell.
The trees murmured mournfully. A sigh like a song of farewell and a sad reproach echoed through the wood. The ferns stirred with a gentle motion, the young hazel leaves fluttered restlessly, the pines rustled softly with their slender needles the whole wood trembled and became alive with a prolonged moan. The song of the birds sounded in broken, startled little snatches, while over the sky, and over the earth carpeted with leaves and golden mosses and snowy valley-lilies, and through the whole verdant wood there flitted mysterious shadows, sounds and calls like the echo of sorrowful sobbing.
"Stay with me! . . . Stay!" the wood seemed to say.
The torrent roared noisily, swept away the broken boughs that impeded its course, circled and descended in a cloud of foam, a cascade of mist shining in the sun with all the colors of the rainbow; it went irresistibly onward, triumphantly, whispering: "Go! . . . Go!"
Then there followed a great silence, broken only by the hum of insects and the dull clatter of falling acorns.
"Forever! . . ." whispered Janina.
She arose and started back toward the station. She walked slowly, looking about her with fond, lingering gaze upon the trees, the woodpaths, and the hillsides.
Then she began to think of the new existence before her. There slowly arose in her soul a certain self-conscious power and increasing courage.
When she spied her father on the station platform, not so much as a tremor disturbed her. Already there loomed between them that new world which already lured her.
She even went to the station-master's office for a ticket. She stood before the window and asked for it in a loud voice. Orlowski (for he sold the tickets himself) raised his head with a violent start and something like a red shadow passed over his face, but he did not utter a word. He calmly handed her her change and stared at her coldly, stroking his beard.
On leaving, she turned her head and met his burning gaze. He started violently back from the window and swore aloud, while she went on, only somehow she went more slowly and her legs trembled under her. That gleam of his eyes, as though bloody with tears, struck deep into her heart.
The train arrived and she got on. From the window of the car she still kept gazing at the station. Krenska waved to her with a handkerchief from the house and pretended she was wiping away tears.
Orlowski, in a red cap and immaculately white gloves, paced up and down the platform with a stiff official air and did not glance even once in her direction.
The bell rang and the train pulled out.
The telegrapher was bowing his farewell to her, but she did not see him; she saw only how her father slowly turned about and entered the office.
"Forever! . . ." she whispered. Orlowski came in for supper at the usual hour.
Krenska, in spite of her joy at Janina's departure, was uneasy; she glanced into his eyes with a feeling of fear, walked about even more silently than usual, and was humbler and smaller than ever before.
Orlowski seemed to be wrestling with himself, for he did not burst forth in curses and did not even mention Janina.
On the following day only he locked Janina's room and put the key away in his desk.
He did not sleep that night; his eyes were sunken and his face deathly pale. Krenska heard him walking up and down his room all night, but on the following day he was at work as usual.
At dinner Krenska plucked up courage to speak to him about something.
"Aha . . . I have still to settle with you!" he said.
Krenska grew pale. She began to speak to him about Janina, about her sympathy for her, how she had tried to dissuade her from leaving, how earnestly she had begged her.
"You're a fool!" he hurled at her. "She left because she wanted to. . . . Let her break her neck, if she wants to!"
Krenska began to commiserate his loneliness.
"A cur!" he snarled, spitting beside him in scorn. "You, madame, can leave to-day. I will pay you what is due you and then get out of this house as fast as you can go, or I swear to God I'll have my workmen throw you out! If I am to be alone I'll be entirely alone . . . without any guardians! A cur!"
Banging his glass against the table with such force that it flew into splinters, he went out.
The little garden theater was beginning to awaken.
The curtain arose with a creaking sound and there appeared a barefooted and disheveled boy, clad only in a smock, who began to sweep the temple of art. The dust floated out in large clouds on the garden, settling on the red cloth coverings of the chairs and on the leaves of a few consumptive chestnut trees.
The waiters and servants of the restaurant began to put things to order under the large veranda. One could hear the clatter of washed glasses, the beating of rugs, the moving of chairs and the subdued whispers of the buffet-tender who arranged with a certain unction her rows of bottles, platters containing sandwiches, and huge bouquets a la Makart, resembling dried brooms. The glaring rays of the sun peered in at the sides of the garden and a throng of black sparrows swayed on the branches and perched on the chairs, clamoring for crumbs.
The clock over the buffet was slowly and solemnly striking the hour of ten, when a tall slim boy rushed in on the veranda; a torn cap was perched on the top of his touseled red hair, his freckled face wore a mischievous smile, and his nose was upturned. He ran straight to the buffet.
"Be careful, Wicek, or you'll lose your shoes!" . . . called the barmaid.
"I don't care; I'll get them remodeled!" he retorted jovially, gazing down at his shoes which clung miraculously to his feet despite the fact that they were minus both soles and tops.
"Please, miss, let me have a thimbleful of beer!" he cried bowing ostentatiously.
"Have you the price?" asked the barmaid, extending her palm.
"This evening, I'll pay you. I give you my word, I'll pay you for it without fail," he begged.
The barmaid merely shrugged her shoulders.
"O come on, let me have it, miss. . . . I'll recommend you to the Shah of Persia. . . . Such a broad dame ought to have quite a pull with him. . . ."
The waiters burst out laughing, while the barmaid banged her metal tray against the counter.
"Wicek!" called someone from the entrance.
"At your service, Mr. Manager."
"Are they all here for the rehearsal?"
"Oh! They'll all be here without fail!" he answered, laughing roguishly.
"Did you notify them? . . . Did you go to them with the circular?"
"Yes, they all signed it."
"Did you take the play-bill to the director?"
"The director was still behind the scenes: he was lying in bed and gazing at his toes."
"You should have given it to his wife."
"But Mrs. Directress was in the midst of a tussle with her children; it was a little too noisy there."
"You will go with this letter to Comely Street. . . . Do you know where it is?"
"A few times over, 'She's quite a respectable dame,' as a certain man in the front row said of Miss Nicolette the other day."
"You will take this, wait for an answer, and come right back."
"But Mr. Manager, will I get something for going?"
"Didn't I give you something on account only last night?"
"Oh . . . only a copper! I spent it for beer and sardines, paid the balance of my rent, gave my shoemaker a deposit for a new pair of shoes, and now I'm dead broke!"
"You're a monkey! Here, take this . . . ."
"Blessed are the hands that dispense forty-cent pieces!" he cried with a comical grimace, shuffled his shoes, and ran out.
"Set the stage for the rehearsal!" called the manager, seating himself on the veranda.
The members of the company assembled slowly. They greeted each other in silence and scattered over the garden.
"Dobek," called the stage-manager to a tall man who was making straight for the buffet. "You guzzle from morn till night, and at the rehearsals I cannot hear a word you say. . . . Your prompting isn't worth a bean!"
"Mr. Manager, I had a bad dream that ran something like this: Night . . . a well . . . I stumbled and fell into it . . . I was frozen stiff with fear . . . I called for help . . . no help was near . . . splash! . . . and I was up to my neck in water. . . . Brr! . . . I still feel so cold that nothing will warm me."
"Oh, hang your dreams! You drink from morn till night."
"That's because I can't drink like others: from night till morn. Brr! I feel so beastly chilled!"
"I'll order some hot tea for you."
"Thank you, I'm quite well Mr. Topolski, and use herbs only when I'm sick. Must, the extracted juice, the constituent of rye, that's the only stuff that is worthy of the complete man that I have the honor to consider myself, Mr. Manager."
The director entered and Dobek went to the bar.
"Did you assign all the roles of Nitouche?" the director asked.
"Not quite," answered Topolski, "those women . . . there are three candidates for Nitouche."
"Good morning, Mr. Director!" called one of the pillars of the theater, Majkowska, a handsome actress dressed in a light gown, a silken wrap, and a white hat with a big ostrich feather. She was all rosy from a good night's sleep and from an invisible layer of rouge. She had large, dark-blue eyes, full and carmined lips, classical features, and a proud bearing. She played the principle roles.
"Come here a minute, Mr. Director . . . there is a little matter I would like to speak to you about."
"Always at your service, madame. Perhaps you need some money?" ventured the director with a troubled mien.
"For the present . . . no. What will you have to drink, Mr. Director?"
"Ho! Ho! Somebody's blood is going to be shed!" he cried with a comical gesture.
"I asked what will you drink, Mr. Director?"
"Oh, I don't know. I'd take a glass of cognac, but . . ."
"You're afraid of your wife? She does not appear in Nitouche, does she?"
"No, but . . ."
"Waiter! Two cognacs and sandwiches. . . . You will give the role of Nitouche to Nicolette, will you not, Mr. Director? Please do so, for I have a good reason for asking it. Remember, Mr. Cabinski, that I never ask for a thing in vain, and do this for me . . ."
"That's already the fourth candidate for the part! . . . God! all that I have to stand because of these women!"
"Which of them wants this part?"
"Well, Kaczkowska, my wife, Mimi, and now, Nicolette. . . ."
"Waiter! Two more cognacs," she called, rapping on the tray with her glass. "You will give the part to Nicolette, Mr. Director, I know for a certainty that she will not accept it, for with her wooden voice she could dance, but not sing. But you see, Mr. Director, this is the very reason for giving it to her."
"Well . . . not to mention my own wife, Mimi and Kaczkowska will tear off my head if I do!"
"You'll not lose much by that! I'll explain the matter to them. We will have a splendid farce, for you see that gentleman friend of hers will be present at to-day's rehearsal. Yesterday she boasted to him that you had her in mind when you announced in the papers that the role of Nitouche will be played by the beautiful and dashing Mme. X.X."
Cabinski began to laugh quietly.
"Only don't breathe a word about it. You'll see what will happen. Before him she will pretend to accept the part to show off. Halt will immediately begin to rehearse her and will make a fool of her before everyone. You will then take away her part and give it to whomever you like."
"You women are terrible in your malice."
"Bah, therein lies our strength."
They went out into the garden hall where several members of the company were already waiting for the rehearsal to begin. They sat about on chairs in little groups laughing, joking, telling tales, and complaining while the tuning of the orchestra furnished an accompaniment to the buzz of voices.
On the veranda an increasing number of guests was assembling and the hum of voices, the clatter of plates and the noisy shifting of chairs grew ever louder. The smoke of cigarettes ascended in clouds to the iron roof beams.
Janina Orlowska entered. She sat down at one of the tables and inquired of the waiter:
"Can you tell me if the director of the theater has already arrived?"
"There he is!"
"Which one of them."
"What will you have, madame?"
"I beg your pardon, which of those gentlemen is Mr. Cabinski?"
"A seven! . . . four whiskies!" someone called to the waiter from a nearby table.
"Just a minute, just a minute!"
"Beer!" came another voice.
"Which of those gentlemen is the director?" patiently asked Janina for the second time.
"I will serve you in a minute, madam!" said the waiter bowing on all sides.
To Janina it seemed that they were all staring at her and that the waiters, as they passed with their hands full of beer-glasses and plates, cast such strange glances that she blushed in spite of herself.
Presently the waiter returned, bringing the coffee she had ordered.
"Do you wish to see the director, madame?"
"He is sitting there in the first row of seats. That short man in a white vest . . . there! Do you see him?"
"I do. Thank you!"
"Shall I tell him you wish to speak to him?"
"No. Anyway he seems to be busy."
"He is only chatting."
"And who are those gentlemen with whom he is talking?"
"They are also members of our company—actors."
She paid for the coffee, giving the waiter a ruble. He fumbled about a long time, as though looking for change, but, seeing that she was gazing in another direction, he bowed and thanked her.
Having finished her coffee, Janina went into the hall. She passed by the director and took a cursory look at him. All that she saw was a large, pale, anaemic face, covered with grayish splotches.
A few actors standing near him impressed her as handsome people. She noticed in their gestures, their smooth shaven faces, their easy, smiling airs something so superior to the men whom she had hitherto known, that she listened to their conversation with rapt attention.
The uncurtained stage, wrapt in darkness, drew her with its hidden mystery.
For the first time Janina saw the theater at close range and the actors off stage. The theater seemed to her like a Grecian temple and those people, whose profiles she had before her, and whose eloquent voices sounded in her ears, seemed like true priests of art.
She was regarding everything about her with interest, when she suddenly noticed that the waiter who had served her was whispering something to the director and pointing to her with a slight gesture.
There ran through Janina a tremor of fear, strange and depressing. She did not look up again, but felt that someone was approaching, that someone's glances were resting on her head and encircling her figure.
She was still at a loss how to begin and what to say, but felt that she must speak.
She arose when she noticed Cabinski standing before her.
"I am Mr. Cabinski, the director."
She stood there unable to utter a word.
"You deigned to ask for me, madame?" he queried with a courteous bow, signifying that he was ready to listen to her.
"Yes . . . if you please . . . Mr. Director. I wished to ask you . . . perhaps you could," she stuttered, unable for the moment to find the right words to express what she wished to say.
"Pray rest a little, madame, and calm yourself. Is it something very important?" he whispered, bending toward her and at the same time winking significantly to the actors who were looking on.
"Oh, it is very important!" she answered, meeting his gaze. "I wish to ask you, Mr. Director, if you would accept me as a member of your company."
This last sentence she uttered quickly as though fearing that her courage and voice might fail her ere it was spoken.
"Ah! . . . is that all? . . . You wish to be engaged, miss?" He stiffened suddenly, studying her with a critical gaze.
"I journeyed here especially for that purpose. You will not refuse me, Mr. Director, will you?"
"With whom did you appear before?"
"Pardon me, but I don't quite understand."
"With what company? . . . Where?"
"I have never before appeared in the theater. I came here straight from the country for the express purpose of joining it."
"You have never appeared before? . . . Then, I have no place for you!" and he turned to go.
Janina was seized with a desperate fear that her quest would fail, so with courage and a tone of strong entreaty in her voice she began to speak hurriedly:
"Mr. Director! I journeyed here especially to join your company. I love the theater so ardently that I cannot live without it! . . . Do not refuse me! I do not know anyone here in Warsaw. I came to you because I had read so much about you in the papers. I feel that I could play . . . I have memorized so many roles! . . . You will see, Mr. Director . . . if you only let me appear . . . you will see!"
Cabinski was silent.
"Or perhaps you would prefer to have me call to-morrow? . . . I can wait a few days, if you wish," she added, seeing that he did not answer, but was observing her intently.
Her voice trembled with entreaty; it modulated with ease and there was so much originality and warmth in her tone that Cabinski listened to her with pleasure.
"Now I have no time, but after the rehearsal we can discuss the matter more thoroughly," he said.
She wanted impulsively to press his hand and thank him for the promise, but her courage failed her, for she noticed that an increasing number of people were curiously observing them.
"Hey there, Cabinski!"
"Director! What's that . . . a rendezvous? In broad daylight, before the eyes of all, and scarcely three flights away from Pepa?"
Such were the bantering remarks hurled at him from every direction after his parting with Janina.
"Who is the charmer?"
"Director, it's rather careless to carry on such an affair right there in the limelight."
"Ha! ha! now we've got you! . . . You posed as a flawless crystal, my muddy amber!" called one of the company, a fleshless individual with habitually contorted lips that seemed to spew gall and malice.
"Go to the devil, my dear! This is the first time I saw her," retorted Cabinski.
"A pretty woman! What does she want?"
"A novice of some kind . . . she's seeking an engagement."
"Take her, Director. There are never too many pretty women on the stage."
"The director has enough of those calves."
"Don't fear, Wladek, they do not encumber the budget, for Cabinski has a custom of failing to pay his actors, particularly the young and pretty ladies."
Thereat they all began laughing.
"Treat us to a whiskey, Director, and I will tell you something," Glas began anew.
"Well, what is it?"
"That the manager will treat us to another. . . ."
"My funny sir, your belly grows at the expense of your wit . . . you are beginning to prate like a fool," remarked Wladek.
"Only for fools . . ." Glas maliciously thrust back at Wladek and retired behind the scenes.
"John!" came the voice of the director's wife from the veranda.
Cabinski went out to meet her.
She was a tall, stout woman with a face that still retained traces of great beauty, now carefully preserved with paint; she had coarse features, large eyes, narrow lips, and a very low forehead. Her dress was of an exaggerated youthful style and color, so that from afar she gave the impression of being a young woman.
She was very proud of her director-husband, of her dramatic talent, and of her children, of which she had four. In real life she was fond of playing the role of a matron occupied only with her home and the upbringing of her children, while in truth she was nothing but a comedienne, both in life and behind the scenes. On the stage she impersonated dramatic mothers and all the elder, unhappy women, never understanding her parts, but acting them, nevertheless, with fervor and pathos.
She was a terror to her servants, to her own children, and to young actresses whom she suspected of possessing talents. She had a shrewish temper which she masked before others with an exaggerated calm and feigned weakness.
"Good morning, gentlemen!" . . . she called, leaning with a careless attitude on her husband's arm.
The company thronged around her, Majkowska greeting her with an effusive kiss.
"How charming Madame Directress looks to-day," remarked Glas.
"Your vision must have improved, for the directress always looks charming!" interposed Wladek.
"How is your health? . . . Yesterday's performance must have taxed your strength."
"You played superbly! . . . We all stood behind the scenes in rapt attention."
"The critics were all weeping. I saw Zarski wiping his eyes with his handkerchief."
"After sneezing . . . he has a bad catarrh," called someone from the side.
"The public was fascinated and swept off its feet in the third act . . . they arose in their chairs."
"That's because they wanted to run away from such a treat," came the mocking voice again.
"How many bouquets did you receive, Madame Directress?"
"Ask the director, he paid the bill."
"Ah, Mr. Counselor, you are unbearable to-day!" cried the directress in a sweet voice, although almost pale with rage, for all the actors were growing red in the face in their effort to keep from laughing.
"It's intended as a kindness. . . . All the rest of them are saying pretty things, let me say something sensible."
"You are an impertinent man, Mr. Counselor! . . . How can you say such things? . . ."
"Moreover, what do I care about the theater! If I played well, I owe it to my husband; if I played badly it's the fault of the director for forcing me to appear continually in new roles! If I had my way, I would lock myself up with my children and confine myself to domestic affairs. . . . My God! art is such a big thing and we are all, compared with it, so small, so small that I tremble with fear before each new performance!" she declaimed.
"Please let me have a word with you in private," called Majkowska.
"Do you see? . . . there is not even time to talk of art!" she sighed deeply and departed.
"An old scarecrow!"
"An everlasting cow! . . . She thinks she is an artist!"
"Yesterday she bellowed terribly."
"She flung herself around the stage as though she had St. Vitus' dance!"
"Hush! . . . according to her that is realism!"
On the veranda Majkowska was concluding her conversation with Mrs. Cabinska.
"Will you give me your word of honor, Madame Directress?"
"Of course, I'll see to it right away."
"It must be done. Nicolette has made herself impossible in this company. Why, she even dares to criticize your own playing! Yesterday I saw her making disparaging remarks to that editor," Majkowska whispered.
"What! she dares to meddle with me?"
"I never indulge in gossip, nor do I want to sow hatred, but—"
"What did she say? . . . in the presence of the editor, did you say? Ah, the vile coquette!"
Majkowska smothered a smile, but hastily replied, "No, I'll not tell you . . . I do not like to repeat gossip!"
"Well, I'll pay her back for it! . . . Wait, we'll teach her a lesson!" hissed the directress.
"Dobek, prompter! . . . get into your box!"
"Ladies and gentlemen, the rehearsal commences!"
"To the stage! to the stage!" was the cry that went up all over the hall as the actors hurried behind the scenes.
"Mr. Director!" called Majkowska, "you can give the role to Nicolette . . . your wife agrees to it."
"Very well, my dears, very well . . . ."
He went out on the veranda where Nicolette was already seated with a young gentleman, very fastidiously dressed.
"We request your presence at the rehearsal, Miss Nicolette. . . ."
"What are you rehearsing?" asked Nicolette.
"Nitouche . . . why, don't you know that you are to appear in the title role? . . . I have already advertised it in the papers."
Kazckowska, who had at that moment entered and was looking at them, hastily covered her face with her parasol, so as not to burst out laughing at the comical look of embarrassment on Nicolette's face.
"I am too indisposed at present to take part in the rehearsal," she said, scrutinizing Cabiniski and Kaczkowska.
Evidently she suspected some ruse, but Cabinski, with the solemnest mien in the world, handed her the role.
"Here is your part, madame. . . . We begin immediately," he said, going away.
"But Mr. Director! my dear Director, I pray you, go on with the rehearsal without me! . . . I have such a headache that I doubt I could sing," she pleaded.
"It can't be done. We begin immediately."
"Oh, please do sing, Miss Nicolette! I'm crazy to hear you sing!" begged the squire.
"What is it, my soprano?"
And the directress appeared, pointing to Janina who was standing behind the scenes.
"A novice," answered Cabinski.
"Are you going to engage her?"
"Yes, we need chorus girls. The sisters from Prague have left, for they made nothing but scandals."
"She looks rather homely," opined Mrs. Cabinska.
"But she has a very scenic face! . . . and also a very nice, though strange voice."
Janina did not lose a word of this conversation, carried on in an undertone; she had also heard the chorus of praise that went up on the directress's appearance, and later, the chorus of derision. She gazed with a bewildered look on that whole company.
"Clear the stage! clear the stage!"
Those standing on the stage hastily moved back behind the scenes, for at the moment the entire chorus rushed out in a gallop: a throng of women, chiefly young women, but with painted faces, faded and blighted by their feverish life. There were blondes and brunettes, small and tall, thin and stout a motley gathering from all spheres of life. There were among them the faces of madonnas with defiant glances, and the smooth, round faces, expressionless and unintelligent, of peasant girls. And all were boredly cynical, or, at least, appeared so.
They began to sing.
"Halt! Start over again!" roared the director of the orchestra, an individual with a big red face and huge mutton-chop whiskers.
The chorus retired and came back again with heavy step, carrying on a sort of collective can-canade, but every minute there was heard the sharp bang of the conductor's baton against his desk and the hoarse yell—"Halt! Start over again!" And swinging his baton he would mutter under his nose: "You cattle!"
The chorus rehearsal dragged on interminably. The actors, scattered about in the seats, yawned wearily and those who took part in the evening's performance paced up and down behind the scenes, indifferently waiting for their turn to rehearse.
In the men's dressing-room Wicek was shining the shoes of the stage-manager and giving him a hasty account of his mission to Comely Street.
"Did you deliver the letter? . . . Have you an answer?"
"I should smile!" and he handed Topolski a long pink envelope.
"Wicek! . . . If you squeal a word of this to anyone, you clown, you know what awaits you!"
"That's stale news! . . . The lady said just that, too. Only she added a ruble to her warning."
"Maurice!" called Majkowska sharply, appearing at the door of the dressing-room.
"Wait a minute. . . . I can't go with only one shoe shined, can I!"
"Why didn't you have the maid shine them?"
"The maid is always at your service and I can't get a single thing from her."
"Well, go and hire another."
"All right, but it will be for myself alone."
"Nicolette, to the stage!"
"Call her!" cried Cabinski from the stage to those sitting around in the chairs.
"Come, Maurice," whispered Majkowska. "It'll be worth seeing."
"Nicolette, to the stage!" cried those in the chairs.
"In a moment! Here I am . . ." and Nicolette, with a sandwich in her mouth and a box of candy under her arm, rushed for the stage entrance with such violence that the floor creaked under her steps.
"What the devil do you mean by appearing so late! This is a rehearsal . . . we are all waiting," angrily muttered the conductor of the orchestra. .
"I am not the only one you are waiting for," she retorted.
"Precisely, we are waiting only for you, madame, and you know we have not come here to argue. . . . On with the rehearsal!"
"But I have not yet learned a single line. Let Kaczkowska sing . . . that is a part for her!"
"The part was given to you, wasn't it? . . . Well, then there's no use arguing! Let us begin."
"Oh, director! Can't we postpone it till this afternoon? Just now, it . . ."
"Try it, Miss Nicolette . . . that part is well adapted to your voice. . . . I myself asked the director to give it to you," encouraged Mrs. Cabinska with a friendly smile.
Nicolette listened, scanning the faces of the whole company, but they were all immobile. Only the young gentleman smiled amorously at her from the chairs.
The conductor raised his baton, the orchestra began to play, and the prompter gave her the first words of her part.
Nicolette, who was noted for never being able to learn her role, now tripped up in the very first line and sang it as falsely as possible.
They began over again; it went a little better, but "Halt," as they called the conductor, intentionally skipped a measure, causing her to make an awful mess of it.
A chorus of laughter arose on the stage.
"A musical cow!"
"To the ballet with such a voice and such an ear!"
Nicolette, on the verge of tears, approached Cabinski.
"I told you that I could not sing just now. . . . I had not even time to glance at my part."
"Aha, so you cannot, madame? . . . Please hand me the role! . . . Kaczkowska will sing it."
"I can sing, but just now I am unable to . . . I don't want to flunk!"
"To turn the heads of gentlemen, to make intrigues, to slander others before the press reporters, to go gallivanting all about town . . . for that you have time!" hissed Mrs. Cabinska.
"Oh, go and mind your children . . . but don't you dare to meddle with my affairs."
"Director! She insults me, that . . ."
"Hand me the part," ordered Cabinski. "You can sing in the chorus, madame, since you are unable to sing a role."
"Oh no! . . . Just for that I am going to sing it! . . . I don't care a snap for these vile intrigues!"
"Who are you saying that to?" cried Cabinska, jumping up from her chair. "Well, to you, if you like."
"You are dismissed from the company!" interposed Cabinski.
"Oh, go to the devil, all of you!" shouted Nicolette throwing the role into Cabinski's face. "It's known long ago that in your company there is no place for a respectable woman!"
"Get out of here, you adventuress!"
Cabinska sprang at her, but halfway across she stopped short and burst into tears.
"On the right there is a sofa . . . it will be more comfortable for you to faint on, Madame Directress!" called someone from the chairs.
The company smiled with set faces.
"Pepa! . . . my wife! . . . calm yourself. . . . For God's sake can't we ever do any thing without these continual rumpuses!"
"Am I the cause of it?"
"I'm not blaming you . . . but you could at least calm yourself . . . there's no reason for you acting this way!"