A NOVEL OF MODERN POLAND.
AUTHOR OF "WITH FIRE AND SWORD," "THE DELUGE," "QUO VADIS," ETC.
TRANSLATED FROM THE POLISH BY
"A man who leaves memoirs, whether well or badly written, provided they be sincere, renders a service to future psychologists and writers, giving them not only a faithful picture of the times, but likewise human documents that can be relied upon."
In "WITHOUT DOGMA" we have a remarkable work, by a writer known only in this country through his historical novels; and a few words concerning this novel and its author may not be without interest.
Readers of Henryk Sienkiewicz in America, who have known him only through Mr. Curtin's fine, strong translations, will be surprised to meet with a production so unlike "Fire and Sword," and "The Deluge," that on first reading one can scarcely believe it to be from the pen of the great novelist.
"Fire and Sword," "The Deluge," and "Pan Michael" (now in press) form, so to speak, a Polish trilogy. They are, first and last, Polish in sentiment, nationality, and patriotism. What Wagner did for Germany in music, what Dumas did for France, and Scott for all English-speaking people, the great Pole has achieved for his own country in literature. Even to those most unfamiliar with her history, it grows life-like and real as it speaks to us from the pages of these historical romances. Only a very great genius can unearth the dusty chronicles of past centuries, and make its men and women live and breathe, and speak to us. These historical characters are not mere shadows, puppets, or nullities, but very real men and women, our own flesh and blood.
His warriors fight, love, hate; they embrace each other; they laugh; they weep in each other's arms; give each other sage counsels, with a truly Homeric simplicity. They are deep-versed in stratagems of love and war, these Poles of the seventeenth century! They have their Nestor, their Agamemnon, their great Achilles sulking in his tent. Oddly enough, at times they grow very familiar to us, and in spite of their Polish titles and faces, and a certain tenderness of nature that is almost feminine, they seem to have good, stout, Saxon stuff in them. Especially where the illustrious knights recount their heroic deeds there is a Falstaffian strut in their performance, and there runs riot a Falstaffian imagination truly sublime.
Yet, be it observed, however much in all this is suggestive of the literature of other races and ages, these characters never cease for a moment to be Poles. Here is a vast, moving panorama spread before us; across it pass mighty armies; hetman and banneret go by; the scene is full of stir, life, action. It is constantly changing, so that at times we are almost bewildered, attempting to follow the quick succession of events. We are transported in a moment from the din and uproar of a beleaguered town to the awful solitude of the vast steppes,—yet it is always the Polish Commonwealth that the novelist paints for us, and beneath every other music rises the wild Slavic music, rude, rhythmical, and sad.
There is, too, a background against which these pictures paint themselves, and it reminds us not a little of Verestchagin,—the same deep feeling for nature, and a certain sadness that seems inseparable from the Russian and Lithuanian temperaments, tears following closely upon mirth. At times, after incident upon incident of war, the reader is tempted to exclaim, "Something too much of this!" Yet nowhere, perhaps, except from the great canvases of Verestchagin, has there ever come a more awful, powerful plea for peace than from the pages of "Fire and Sword."
In "Without Dogma" is presented quite another theme, treated in a fashion strikingly different. In the historical novels the stage is crowded with personages. In "Without Dogma," the chief interest centres in a single character. This is not a battle between contending armies, but the greater conflict that goes on in silence,—the battle of a man for his own soul.
He can scarcely be considered an heroic character; he is to some extent the creature of circumstances, the fine product of a highly complex culture and civilization. He regards himself as a nineteenth-century Hamlet, and for him not merely the times, but his race and all mankind, are out of joint. He is not especially Polish save by birth; he is as little at home in Paris or at Rome as in Warsaw. Set him down in any quarter of the globe and he would be equally out of place. He folds the mantle of his pessimism about him. Life has interested him purely as a spectacle, in which he plays no part save a purely passive one. His relation to life is that of the Greek chorus, passing across the stage, crying "Woe, woe!"
Life has interested, entertained, and sometimes wearied him. He muses, philosophizes, utters the most profound observations upon life, art, and the mystery of things. He puts mankind and himself upon the dissecting-table.
Here is a nature so sensitive that it photographs every impression, an artistic temperament, a highly endowed organism; yet it produces nothing. The secret of this unproductiveness lies perhaps in a certain tendency to analyze and philosophize away every strong emotion that should lead to action. Here is a man in possession of two distinct selves,—the one emotional, active; the other eternally occupied in self-contemplation, judgment, and criticism. The one paralyzes the other. He defines himself as "a genius without a portfolio," just as there are certain ministers-of-state without portfolios.
In such a character many of us will find just enough of ourselves to make its weaknesses distasteful to us. We resent, just because we recognize the truth of the picture. Leon Ploszowski belongs unmistakably to our own times. His doubts and his dilettanteism are our own. His fine aesthetic sense, his pessimism, his self-probings, his weariness, his overstrung nerves, his whole philosophy of negation,—these are qualities belonging to this century, the outcome of our own age and culture.
If this were all the book offers us one might well wonder why it was written. But its real interest centres in the moment when the cultivated pessimist "without dogma" discovers that the strongest and most genuine emotion of his life is its love for another man's wife. It is an old theme; certainly two thirds of our modern French novels deal with it; we know exactly how the conventional, respectable British novel would handle it. But here is a treatment, bold, original, and unconventional. The character of the woman stands out in splendid contrast to the man's. Its simplicity, strength, truth, and faith are the antidote for his doubt and weakness. Her very weakness becomes her strength. Her dogmatism saves him.
The background of the book, its lesser incidents, are thoroughly artistic, its ending masterly in its brevity and pathos; here again is the distinguishing mark of genius, the power of condensation. The man who has philosophized and speculated now writes the tragedy of his life in four words: "Aniela died this morning." This is the culmination towards which his whole life has been moving; the rest is foregone conclusion, and matters but little.
One sees throughout the book the strong influence that other minds, Shakespeare notably, have produced upon this mind; here its attitude is never merely pessimistic. It does not criticise them, it has absorbed them.
One last word concerning this novel. It does not seek to formulate, or to preach directly. Its chief value and the keynote to its motive lie in the words that Sienkiewicz at the beginning puts into the mouth of his hero:—
"A man who leaves memoirs, whether well or badly written, provided they be sincere, renders a service to future psychologists and writers, giving them not only a faithful picture, but likewise human documents that may be relied upon."
A human document—the modern novel is this, when it is anything at all. If Mr. Crawford's canons of literary art are true, and we believe they are, they give us a standard by which to judge; he tells us that the heart in each man and woman means the whole body of innate and inherited instincts, impulses, and beliefs, which, when quiescent, we call Self, when roused to emotional activity, we call Heart. It is to this self, or heart, he observes, that whatever is permanent in the novel must appeal; and whatever does so must live and find a hearing with humanity "so long as humanity is human." If this be a test, we cannot doubt as to what will be the reception of "Without Dogma."
A few words concerning the novelist himself. The facts obtainable are of the most meagre kind. He was born in 1845, in Lithuania. The country itself, its natural and strongly religious and political influences, its melancholy, seem to have left their strong, lasting impression upon him. He has a passionate fondness for the Lithuanian, and paints him and his surroundings most lovingly.
His student days were spent at Warsaw. He devoted himself afterward to literature, writing at first under a pseudonym. He does not seem to have won immediate recognition. He spent some years in California; a series of articles published in this connection in a Polish paper brought him into notice.
In 1880, various novelettes and sketches of his production were published in three volumes.
In 1884 were given to the Polish public the three historical novels which immediately gave their author the foremost place in Polish literature. It is a matter of pride that the first translation of these great works into English is the work of an American, and offered to the American public.
He is a prolific writer, and it would be impossible to attempt to give even the names of all his minor sketches and romances. Some of them have been translated into German, but much has been lost in the translation.
Sienkiewicz is still a contributor to journalistic literature. He has travelled much, and is a citizen of the world. He is equally at home in the Orient or the West, by the banks of the Dnieper, or beside the Nile. Probably there is scarcely a corner of Poland that he has not explored. He depicts no type of life that has not actually come under his own observation. The various social strata of his own country, the condition of its peasantry, the marked contrast between the simplicity of that life and the culture of the ecclesiastic and aristocratic bodies, the religious, poetic, artistic temperament of the people,—all these he paints in a life-like fashion, but always as an artist.
So much of the writer. Of the man Sienkiewicz there is little to be obtained. Like all great creative geniuses, he is so completely identified with his work that even while his personality lives in his creations it eludes them. He offers us no confidences concerning himself, no opinions or prejudices. He does not divert the reader with personalities. He sets before us certain groups of men and women, whom certainly he knows and loves, and has lived among. He sets them in motion; they become living, breathing creations; they assume relations in time and space; they speak and act for themselves. If there be a prompter he remains always behind the scenes. Admire or criticise or love the actors as you will, you cannot for a moment doubt that they are alive.
This is the supreme miracle of genius,—the fine union of dramatic instinct, the aesthetic sense, and an intense, vital realism; not the realism of the cesspool or the morgue, but the realism of the earth and sky, and of healthy human nature. We are inclined to believe that Henryk Sienkiewicz has answered an often discussed question that has much exercised the keenly critical intellect of this age. One school of thought cries out, "Let us have life as it is. Paint anything, but draw it as it is. Let the final test of all literary works be, 'Is it real and true?'"
To the romantic school quite another class of ideas appeals; to it much of the so-called realistic literature seems very bad, or merely "weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable." The profoundest utterances of realism do not impress it much in themselves. It insists that art has something to say to literature, that in this field as elsewhere holds good the law of natural selection of types and survival of the fittest.
While each school has its down-sittings and up-risings, its supporters and its critics, neither school has yet exhausted the possibilities of literature. The novel's aim is to depict Life, and life is neither all romance nor all realism, but a curious mixture of both. Man is neither a beast nor a celestial being, but a compound. Though he can crawl, and may have clinging to him certain brute instincts that may be the relics of his anthropoidal days, he has also, thank God, divine desires and discontents, and certain rudimentary wings. And neither school alone is competent to paint him as he is. The author of "La Bete Humaine" fails as completely as the visionary A Kempis. Neither realism nor romance alone will ever with its small plummet sound to its depths the human heart or its mystery; yet from the union of the two much perhaps might come.
We believe that just here lies the value of the novels of Henryk Sienkiewicz. He has worked out the problem of the modern novel so as to satisfy the most ardent realist, but he has worked it out upon great and broadly human lines. For him facts are facts indeed; but facts have souls as well as bodies. His genius is analytic, but also imaginative and constructive; it is not forever going upon botanizing excursions. He paints things and thoughts human.
The greatest genius assimilates unconsciously the best with which it comes in contact, and by a subtle chemistry of its own makes new combinations. Shakespeare, Dante, Goethe, and the realists, as well as all the forces of nature, have helped to make Henryk Sienkiewicz; yet he is not any one of them. He is never merely imitative. Originality and imaginative fire, a style vivid and strong, large humor, a profound pathos, a strong feeling for nature, and a deep reverence for the forms and the spirit of religion, the breath of the true cosmopolitan united with the intense patriotism of the Pole, a great creative genius,—these are the most striking qualities of the work of this modern novelist, who has married Romance to Realism.
* * * * *
ROME, 9 January.
Some months ago I met my old friend and school-fellow, Jozef Sniatynski, who for the last few years has occupied a prominent place among our literary men. In a discussion about literature Sniatynski spoke about diaries. He said that a man who leaves memoirs, whether well or badly written, provided they be sincere, renders a service to future psychologists and writers, giving them not only a faithful picture of the times, but likewise human documents that can be relied upon. He seemed to think that most likely the novel of the future would take the form of diary; finally he asserted that anybody who keeps a diary works for the common good, and does a meritorious thing.
I am thirty-five, and do not remember ever having done anything for my country, for the reason, maybe, that after leaving the University, my life, with slight intervals, was spent abroad. This fact, so lightly touched upon, has given me, in spite of all my scepticism, many a bitter pang; therefore I resolved to follow my friend's advice. If this indeed means work, with some kind of merit in it, I will try to be of some use in this way.
I intend to be perfectly sincere. I enter upon the task, not only because of the above-mentioned reasons, but also because the idea pleases me. Sniatynski says that if a man gets accustomed to put down his thoughts and impressions it becomes gradually one of the most delightful occupations of his life. If it should prove the contrary, then the Lord have mercy on my diary; it would snap asunder like a string too tightly drawn. I am ready to do much for my community; but to bore myself for its sake, oh, no! I could not do it.
Nevertheless, I am resolved not to be discouraged by first difficulties, and shall give it a fair trial. "Do not adopt any style; do not write from a literary point of view," says Sniatynski. Easier said than done. I fully understand that the greater the writer, the less he writes in a purely literary style; but I am a dilettante, and have no command over any style. I know from experience that to one who thinks much and feels deeply, it often seems that he has only to put down his thoughts and feelings in order to produce something altogether out of the common; yet as soon as he sets to work he falls into a certain mannerism of style and common phraseology; his thoughts do not come spontaneously, and one might almost say that it is not the mind that directs the pen, but the pen leads the mind into common, empty artificiality. I am afraid of this for myself, for if I am wanting in eloquence, literary simplicity, or picturesqueness, I am not wanting in good taste, and my own style might become distasteful to myself, and thereby render my task impossible. But this I shall see later on. I begin my diary with a short introductory autobiography.
My name is Leon Ploszowski, and I am, as I said before, thirty-five years of age. I come from a wealthy family which has been able to preserve its fortune. As to myself I shall not increase it, and at the same time I am not likely to squander it. My position is such that there is no necessity for me to enter into competition with struggling humanity. As to expensive and ruinous pleasures, I am a sceptic who knows how much they are worth, or rather, knows that they are not worth anything.
My mother died a week after I was born. My father, who loved her more than his life, became affected with melancholia. Even after he recovered from this, at Vienna, he did not wish to return to his estates, as the memories associated with them rent his very soul; he left Ploszow under the care of his sister, my aunt, and betook himself in the year 1848 to Rome, which, during thirty-odd years, he never left once, so as to be near my mother's tomb. I forgot to mention that he brought her remains to Rome, and buried her on the Campo Santo.
We have our own house on the Babuino, called Casa Osoria, from our coat of arms. It looks more like a museum than anything else, as my father possesses no mean collections, especially from the early Christian times. In these collections his whole life is now absorbed. As a young man, he was very brilliant in appearance as well as in mind; his wealth and name added to this, all roads were open to him, and consequently great things were expected from him. I know this from his fellow-students at Berlin. He was deeply absorbed in the study of philosophy, and it was generally believed his name would rank with such as Cieszkowski, Libelt, and others. Society, and his being a favorite in female circles, diverted him somewhat from scientific studies. In society he was known by the nickname of "Leon l'Invincible." In spite of his social success he did not neglect his philosophical researches, and everybody expected that some day he would electrify the world with a great work, and make his name illustrious. They were disappointed in their expectations.
Of the once so beautiful appearance there still remains up to this day one of the finest and noblest heads. Artists are of the same opinion, and not long ago one of them remarked that it would be difficult to find a more perfect type of a patrician head. As to his scientific career, my father is and remains a cultured and gifted nobleman-dilettante. I almost believe dilettantism to be the fate of all Ploszowskis, to which I will refer later on, when I come to write about myself. As to my father, there is in his desk a yellow manuscript about Triplicity in Nature. I perused it, and it did not interest me. I only remember a comparison between the transcendental belief of Christianity in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, and the natural triplicity of oxygen, hydrogen, and ozone, with many other analogous triplicities from absolute truth, goodness, and beauty, to the syllogism of the minor premise, the major premise, and the conclusion,—a quaint mixture of Hegel and Hoene-Wronski, and utterly useless. I am quite convinced that my father did not intend to have it published, if only for the reason that speculative philosophy had failed in him even before it was set aside by the world. The reason for this failure was the death of my mother. My father, who in spite of his nickname, "Leon l'Invincible," and reputation of conqueror of hearts, was a man of deep feelings and simply worshipped my mother, put many terrible questions to his philosophy, and not obtaining either answer or comfort, recognized its utter emptiness in the presence of a great sorrow. This must have been an awful tragedy of his life, since it almost shattered its foundations,—the brain and heart. His mind became affected, as I said before, and when he recovered he went back to his religious convictions. I was told that at one time he prayed night and day, knelt down in the street when he passed a church, and was carried away by his religious fervor to such an extent that he was looked upon by some as a madman, by others as a saint. It was evident he found more consolation in this than in his philosophical triplicities, for he gradually calmed down and began to lead a more rational life. His heart, with all his power for affection, turned towards me, and his aesthetic bent found employment in the study of early Christianity. The lofty, restless mind wanted nourishment. After his first year in Rome he took up archaeology, and by dint of hard study acquired a thorough knowledge of the antique.
Father Calvi, my first tutor and at the same time a great judge of Roman antiquities, gave him the final impulse towards investigation of the Eternal City. Some fifteen years ago my father became acquainted and subsequently on terms of friendship with the great Rossi, in whose company he spent whole days in the catacombs. Thanks to his extraordinary gifts he soon acquired such consummate knowledge of Rome as to astonish Rossi himself. Several times he began writing treatises on the subject, but never finished what he had begun. Maybe the completion of his collections took up too much of his time, but most likely the reason he will not leave anything behind him except his collections is that he did not confine himself to one epoch or any specialty in his researches. Gradually mediaeval Rome began to fascinate him as much as the first era of Christianity. There was a time when his mind was full of Orsinis and Colonnas; after that he approached the Renaissance, and was fairly captivated by it. From inscriptions, tombs, and the first traces of Christian architecture he passed to nearer times; from the Byzantine paintings to Fiesole and Giotto, from these to artists of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and so on; he fell in love with statues and pictures; his collections certainly increased, but the great work in Polish about the three Romes remained forever in the land of unfulfilled intentions.
As to these collections my father has a singular idea. He wants to bequeath them to Rome under the condition they should be placed in a separate gallery named after him, "Museum Osoria Ploszowski." Of course his wishes will be respected. I only wonder why my father believes that in doing this he will be more useful to his community than by sending them to his own country.
Not long ago he said to me: "You perceive that scarcely anybody there would see them, and very few derive any benefit, whereas here the whole world can study them, and every individual that benefits thereby carries the benefit to other communities." It does not befit me to analyze how much family pride and the thought of having his name engraved in marble in the Eternal City has to do with the whole scheme. I almost think that such must be the case. As to myself, I am perfectly indifferent where the collections are to remain. But my aunt, to whom by the bye I am shortly going to pay a visit at Warsaw, is very indignant at the idea of leaving the collections out of the country, and as, with her, thought and speech go always together, she expresses her indignation in every letter. Some years ago she was at Rome, and they wrangled every day over the matter, and would have quarrelled outright had not the affection she has towards me subdued her temper.
My aunt is older than my father by several years. When my father, after his great sorrow, left the country, he gave up the Ploszow estate to her, and took instead the ready capital. My aunt has managed the property for thirty years, and manages it perfectly. She is of a rather uncommon character, therefore I will devote to her a few lines. At the age of twenty she was betrothed to a young man who died in exile just when my aunt was about to follow him abroad. From that time forth she refused all offers of marriage and remained an old maid. After my mother's death she went with my father to Vienna and Rome, where she lived with him, surrounding him with the tenderest affections, which she subsequently transferred to me. She is, in the full meaning of the word, une grande dame, somewhat of an autocrat, haughty and outspoken, with that self-possession wealth and a high position give, but withal the very essence of goodness and kindliness. Under the cover of abrupt manners she has an excellent and lenient disposition, loving not only her own family, as for instance my father and myself and her own household, but mankind in general. She is so virtuous that really I do not know whether there be any merit in it, as she could not be otherwise if she tried. Her charities are proverbial. She orders poor people about like a constable, and tends them like a Saint Vincent de Paul. She is very religious. No doubts whatever assail her mind. What she does, she does from unshaken principles, and therefore never hesitates in the choice of ways and means. Therefore she is always at peace with herself and very happy. At Warsaw they call my aunt, on account of her abrupt manners, le bourreau bienfaisant. Some people, especially among women, dislike her, but generally speaking she lives in peace with all classes.
Ploszow is not far from Warsaw, where my aunt owns a house in which she spends the winter. Every winter she tries to inveigle me there in the hope to see me married. Even now I received a mysteriously worded missive adjuring me to come at once. I shall have to go, as I have not seen her for some time. She writes that she is getting old and wishes to see me before she dies. I confess I do not always feel inclined to go. I know that my aunt's dearest wish is to see me married, therefore every visit brings her a cruel disappointment. The very idea of such a decisive step frightens me. To begin a new life when I am so tired of the old one! Finally, there is another vexatious element in my relations with my aunt. As formerly my father's friends looked upon him as a genius, so she persists in regarding me as one exceptionally gifted, from whom great things are to be expected. To allow her to remain of this opinion seems an abuse of her good faith; to tell her that nothing is to be expected from me would be a more likely conclusion, but at the same time inflict upon the dear old lady a cruel blow.
To my misfortune many of those near me share my aunt's opinion, and this brings me to the point of drawing a sketch of my own character, which is by no means an easy task, as my nature is rather a complicated one.
I brought with me into the world very sensitive nerves, nerves perfected by the culture of generations. During the first years of my childhood I remained under the care of my aunt; after her departure, according to the custom of our country, a nursery governess was engaged for me. As we lived in Rome, among foreign surroundings, and my father wished me to be well grounded in my own language, he engaged a Polish governess. She is still with us as housekeeper at Babuino. My father also bestowed some pains upon me, especially after my fifth year. I used to go to his room to talk with him, and this developed my mind prodigiously, too much so perhaps for my age. Later on, when his studies and archaeologic researches took up his whole time, he engaged a tutor, Father Calvi. This was an old man, with a mind and faith exceedingly serene. He loved art beyond everything. I believe religion even reacted upon him through its beauty. In the galleries before the old masters, or listening to the music in the Sistine Chapel, he lost himself altogether. There was nothing pagan in these feelings, as they were not based upon sybaritism or sensual enjoyment. Father Calvi loved art with the pure, serene feeling as maybe a Da Fiesole, a Cimabue, or Giotto loved it. And he loved in all humility, as he himself had no gifts that way. I could not say which of the fine arts he loved best, but I believe he leaned mostly towards harmony, which responded to the harmony of his own mind.
Whenever I think of Father Calvi, I am reminded at the same time of the old man that stands beside Raphael's Saint Cecilia listening intently to the music of the spheres.
Between my father and the priest sprang up a friendship which lasted unto the latter's death. It was he who confirmed my father in his archaeologic researches, especially about Rome. There was another bond between these two,—their love for me. Both considered me as an exceptionally gifted child, and of a God knows what promising future. It strikes me at times that I formed for them a kind of harmony,—a rounding of and completion to the world in which they lived; and they loved me with the same absorbing passion with which they loved Rome and its antiquities. Such an atmosphere, such surroundings, could not fail to impress my mind. I was brought up in an original way. With my tutor,—sometimes with my father,—I visited galleries, museums, villas, ruins, catacombs, and the environs of Rome. Father Calvi was equally sensitive to the beauties of nature and to those of art, and taught me at an early age to understand poetic melancholy. The Roman Campagna, the harmony of the arch-line on the sky of the arches in the ruined aqueducts, the fine tracery of the pines,—I understood all this before I could read or had mastered the first rudiments of arithmetic. I was able to set English tourists right to whom the names of Carracci and Caravaggio caused confusion. I learned Latin early and without effort, from being familiar with the Italian language. I gave my opinion about Italian and foreign masters,—which, however unsophisticated, made both my father and my tutor look at each other in astonishment. I did not like Ribera,—there was too great a contrast of color in his pictures, and he frightened me a little; but I liked Carlo Dolce. In short, my tutor, my father, and his friends considered me a very prodigy; I heard myself praised, and it flattered my vanity. But, all the same, it was not the healthiest of educations; and my nervous system, developed too early, always remained very sensitive. It seems strange that these influences were neither so deep nor so lasting as might have been expected. That I did not become an artist is owing, may be, to a lack of gifts that way,—although my drawing and music masters opined differently; but how was it that neither my father nor the priest was able to imbue me with that love of art for art's sake? Have I a feeling for art? Yes. Is art a necessity of my life? Yes, again. But they loved it; I only feel it as a dilettante; it is a necessity in so far as it complements every kind of pleasant and delightful sensation. It is one of my delights, but not an all-absorbing passion; I should not like to live without it, but could not devote my whole life to it.
As the schools at Rome left much to be desired, my father sent me to a college in Metz, where I carried off honors and prizes with very little effort. A year before the last term, I ran away to join Don Carlos, and with Tristan's detachment wandered for some time about the Pyrenees; until my father, with the help of the consul in Burgos, found me, and I was sent back to Metz to be duly punished. The penalty was not a heavy one, as my father and the teachers were secretly proud of my escapade. A brilliant success at the examinations quickly earned me a full absolution.
Among my schoolfellows, whose sympathies were naturally with Don Carlos, I henceforth passed as a hero; and as I was at the same time one of the foremost pupils, my position as the first at school was beyond dispute. I was growing up with the conviction that later on, in a larger sphere, it would be the same. This opinion was shared by my teachers and schoolfellows; and yet the fact is that many of my schoolfellows who at one time would not have dreamed of competing with me, occupy to-day in France high places in literary, scientific, and political spheres; whereas I, had I to choose a profession, should feel considerably perplexed. My social position is excellent. I possess independent means from my mother's side, shall inherit my father's fortune in time to come, and administer the Ploszow estate more or less wisely, as the case may be; but the very limitation of the work excludes all hope of distinguishing myself in life, or playing any prominent part in it.
I shall never be a great administrator or agriculturist; for though I do not mean to shirk my duties, I could not devote my whole life to them,—for the simple reason that my aspirations aim much higher. Sometimes I ask myself whether we Ploszowskis do not delude ourselves as to our abilities. But if such were the case, the delusion would be only personal; other people, strangers, could not be deceived in the same way. Besides, I know that my father is an extraordinarily gifted man. As to myself, I will not enter more fully on the subject, as it might appear mere boastfulness; nevertheless I have the conviction that I could be something infinitely greater than I am.
For instance, at Warsaw (my father and my aunt wished me to enter the university there) Sniatynski and I were fellow-students. We both were drawn towards literature, and tried our hand at it. I do not say I was looked upon as the more gifted of the two, but the truth is that my work then was considered better and more promising than Sniatynski's. Sniatynski has for some years past occupied a prominent position in literature, and I am still the greatly promising Pan Ploszowski, of whom here and there people are wont to say: "If he would only take up something!"
Ah! there is the rub,—"if he would!" But they do not seem to take it into account that one has to know how to will. I thought sometimes that if I had no means of subsistence I should have to work. Certainly I should have to do something in order to earn my bread; but even then I am firmly convinced I should not derive the twentieth part of advantage from my capacities. Besides, such men as Darwin or Buckle were rich; Sir John Lubbock is a banker; most of the known men in France are in easy circumstances. This proves that wealth is not a hindrance, but rather a help towards attaining a proper standing in the chosen field of labor. I confess that, as far as I am concerned, it has done me some service, as it preserved my character from many a crookedness poverty might have exposed it to. I do not mean by this that I have a weak character,—although struggle for existence might have made it stronger; but still I maintain that the less stony the road, the less chance of a fall. It is not owing to constitutional laziness, either, that I am a nullity. I possess alike a great facility for acquiring knowledge, and a desire for it; I read much, and have a good memory. Perhaps I could not summon energy enough for a long, slow work, but the greater facility ought to serve instead; and besides, there is no urgent necessity for me to write encyclopedias, like Littre. He who cannot shine with the steady light of a sun might at least dazzle as a meteor. But oh! that nothingness of the past,—the most probable nothingness of the future! I am growing peevish—and tired; and will leave off writing for to-day.
ROME, 10 January.
Last night, at Count Malatesta's reception, I heard by chance these two words: "l'improductivite Slave." I experienced the same relief as does a nervous patient when the physician tells him that his symptoms are common enough, and that many others suffer from the same disease. I have many fellow-sufferers, not only among other Slavs, a race which I know but imperfectly, but in my own country. I thought about that "improductivite Slave" all night. He had his wits about him who summed the thing up in two words. There is something in us,—an incapacity to give forth all that is in us. One might say, God has given us bow and arrow, but refused us the power to string the bow and send the arrow straight to its aim. I should like to discuss it with my father, but am afraid to touch a sore point. Instead of this, I will discuss it with my diary. Perhaps it will be just the thing to give it any value. Besides, what can be more natural than to write about what interests me? Everybody carries within him his tragedy. Mine is this same "improductivite slave" of the Ploszowskis. Not long ago, when romanticism flourished in hearts and poetry, everybody carried his tragedy draped around him as a picturesque cloak; now it is carried still, but as a jaegervest next to the skin. But with a diary it is different; with a diary one may be sincere.
ROME, 11 January.
The few days which remain to me before my departure I will use in retrospects of the past, until I come to note down day after day the events of my present life. As I said before, I do not intend to write an autobiography; who and what I am, my future life will show sufficiently. I should not like to enter into minute details of the past,—it is a kind of adding number to number, and a summing up. I always hated the four rules of arithmetic, and especially the first. But I want to have a general idea of the total, so as to have a clearer view of myself. Therefore I go on with the mere outline.
After having finished my studies at the university I went to an agricultural school in France. The work there was easy enough, but it had no special attraction for me. I did it as one who knows that this special branch of knowledge will be useful to him, but at the same time feels that he lowers himself to it and that it does not respond either to his ambition or his faculties. I derived a twofold gain from my sojourn there. Agriculture became to me familiar enough to protect me from being cheated by any agents or bailiffs, and it strengthened my frame so that it could withstand the life I later on led in Paris.
The years following I spent either in Koine or in Paris, not to mention short stays at Warsaw, where my aunt summoned me now and then in order to introduce me to some special favorite of hers with a view to matrimony.
Paris and its life attracted me greatly. With the truly excellent opinion I had then of myself, with more confidence in my intelligence and the self-possession an independent position gives, I still played a very unsophisticated part on this scene of the world. I began by falling desperately in love with Mademoiselle Richemberg of the Comedie Francaise, and absolutely insisted upon marrying her. I will not dwell now upon the many tragicomic imbroglios, as I am partly ashamed of those times, and partly inclined to laugh at them. Still later on it happened that I took counterfeits for pure gold. The French women, and for the matter of that, my own countrywomen, of whatever class and in spite of all their virtues when young, remind me of my fencing lessons. As the fencer has his hour of practice with the foils so as to keep his hand in, so women practise with sentimental foils. As a mere youth, fairly good looking, I was sometimes invited to a passage of arms, and as I took the matter seriously, received many a scratch. They were not mortal wounds and healed quickly. Besides, everybody has to pay for his apprenticeship in this world, especially in a world like that. My time of probation was, comparatively speaking, a short one. Then came a period one might call "la revanche." I paid back in the same coin, and if now and then I was still taken in, it was with my eyes open to the fact.
Myself of a good social standing, I came to know all shades of society, from the old legitimist circles, where I was not a little bored, to the new aristocracy created by the Bonapartes and the Orleanists, representing the society, perhaps not of Paris, but let us say, of Nice. Dumas the Younger, Sardou, and others, take thence their counts, marquises, and princes, who, without historical traditions, have titles and money in plenty, and whose principal aim is to enjoy life. I frequented their salons mostly for the sake of their female element. They are very subtle, the women there, with highly strung nerves always in search for new pleasures, fresh sensations, and truly void of any idealism. They are often as corrupt as the novels they are reading, because their morality finds no support either in religion or tradition. But it is a brilliant world all the same. The hours of practice with the foils are so long there that they look more like days and nights, and the weapons are dangerous sometimes, as they are not blunted. There too I received a few painful lessons until I got my hand in. It would be a sign of mere vanity and still more of bad taste to write about my successes, and I will only say this, that I tried to keep alive the tradition of my father's youth.
The lowest circles of this world slightly merge into the higher sphere of the great demi-monde. This demi-monde is far more dangerous than appears on the surface because it is not in the least commonplace. Its cynicism has a certain air of refinement and art. If I did not leave many feathers there it must be because my beak had acquired a certain curve and my claws had grown. Generally speaking of the life in Paris, a man who has passed through that mill feels rather exhausted, and what then of such as I, who leave only to go back again? It is only later on in life we begin to understand that triumphs like these are somewhat like the victories of Pyrrhus. My naturally strong constitution withstood this life, but my nerves are somewhat shattered.
Paris, though, possesses one superiority over other centres of civilization. I do not know of any other city in the world where the elements of art, science, and all kinds of human ideas seem to float in the air to be assimilated by the human brain. Almost unconsciously it imbibes not only the newest ideas in the sphere of intellect, but also loses some of its onesidedness, broadens out, becomes more civilized. I say again, civilized, because in Italy, Germany, and Poland, I met with brains and powerful brains too, but who would not recognize any light but their own, so onesided and barbarian that for one who did not want to sacrifice his own opinions, intercourse from an intellectual point of view was simply impossible.
In France and still more in Paris, similar manifestations have no existence. As a running stream smoothes and polishes the pebbles, rubbing them against each other, so the swift current of life rubs off the angles from the human mind. It is obvious that under such influences my mind became that of a civilized being, that can make due allowance for other people's opinions; I do not utter peacock cries when I hear of anything opposed to my views or something utterly new. It may be that such leniency and tolerance of all opinions leads finally to indifferentism and weakens the active principle in the human mind, but I could not be different now.
A certain mental current got hold of me and carried me along. If the social circles, salons, boudoirs, and clubs took up a considerable part of my time, they did not occupy it altogether. I made many acquaintances in the literary and artistic world, and lived their life, or rather I live it still. Prompted by innate curiosity I read very much, and as I have the faculty of assimilating what I read, I may say that I derived considerable benefit from it and am able to keep step with every intellectual movement of the time.
My consciousness of self is highly developed. At times I feel inclined to send that second self to the devil, that self which does not permit yielding to any sensation, but is always there, searching, criticising every action, feeling, delight, or passion. "Know thyself" may be a wise maxim, but to carry about one's self an ever watchful critic deadens the feeling, dividing as it were your soul in two parts. To exist in a state of mind like this is about as easy as for the bird to fly with one wing. Besides, selfconsciousness too much developed weakens the power of action. But for this, Hamlet would have made a hole in his uncle in the first act, and with the greatest composure taken possession of the throne.
As far as I am concerned, it sometimes protects me or saves me from heedless slips, yet more often tires me, preventing absolute concentration upon one point of action. I carry within me two beings,—the one that protests and criticises, the other leading only half a life, losing gradually all power of decision. I am afraid I shall never free myself from that yoke; on the contrary, the more my mind expands, the more minute will be the knowledge of self, and even on my deathbed I shall not leave off criticising the dying Ploszowski unless disease has fogged my brain.
I must have inherited from my father a synthetic mind, because I always try to generalize matters, and for that reason science attracts me more than philosophy. In my father's time philosophy embraced no more nor less than the whole universe and all being; consequently it had a ready answer for all questions. In our times it has become rational in so far as to confess that it has ceased to exist in the old meaning of the word and remains only as a philosophy of special scientific branches. Truly, when I come to think of it it seems that the human mind too has its tragedies, and it began by confessing its own powerlessness. As I write a personal diary I will treat these matters from a personal point of view. I am not a professed philosopher, because I am nothing by profession; but as a thinking being I am interested in the new philosophic movement; I have been and am under its influence, and have a full right to speak about what entered the composition, and contributed to the creation, of my moral and intellectual being.
To begin with, I note down that my religious belief I carried still intact with me from Metz did not withstand the study of natural philosophy. It does not follow that I am an atheist. Oh, no! This was good enough in former times, when he who did not believe in spirit, said to himself, "Matter," and that settled for him the question. Nowadays only provincial philosophers cling to that worn-out creed. Philosophy of our times does not pronounce upon the matter; to all such questions it says, "I do not know!" and that "I do not know" sinks into and permeates the mind. Nowadays psychology occupies itself with close analysis and researches of spiritual manifestations; but when questioned upon the immortality of the soul it says the same,—"I do not know;" and truly it does not know, and it cannot know. And now it will be easier to describe the state of my mind. It all lies in these words: I do not know. In this—in the acknowledged impotence of the human mind—lies the tragedy. Not to mention the fact that humanity always has asked, and always will ask, for an answer, they are truly questions of more importance than anything else in the world. If there be something on the other side, and that something an eternal life, then misfortunes and losses on this side are as nothing. In this case we might exclaim with Hamlet: "Nay, then, let the devil wear black, for I'll have a suit of sables."
"I am content to die," says Renan; "but I should like to know whether death will be of any use to me."
And philosophy replies, "I do not know."
And man beats against that blank wall, and like the bedridden sufferer fancies, if he could lie on this or on that side, he would feel easier. What is to be done? Are we to abuse philosophy that, instead of building up new systems which, like a house of cards, fall at a touch, it has confessed its impotence, and begun to search for and classify manifestations within reach of the human intellect? Methinks that I and everybody else has a right to say: "Philosophy, I am struck by your common sense, admire your close analysis; but with all that, you have made me supremely wretched. By your own confession you have no answer for a question, to me of the greatest importance, and yet you had power enough to destroy that faith which not only cleared up all doubts, but soothed and comforted the soul. And do not say that, since you do not lay down the law, you permit me to adhere to my old beliefs. It is not true! Your method, your soul, your very essence is doubt and criticism. This, your scientific method, this scepticism, this criticism you have implanted in the soul till they have become a second nature. As with lunar caustic, you have deadened the spiritual nerves by the help of which one believes simply and without question, so that even if I would believe I have lost the power. You permit me to go to church if I like; but you have poisoned me with scepticism to such a degree that I have grown sceptical even with regard to you,—sceptical in regard to my own scepticism; and I do not know, I do not know. I torture myself, and am maddened by the darkness."
ROME, 12 January.
Yesterday I allowed myself to be carried away by my writing. But all the same it seems to me that I laid a finger upon the rottenness of my soul and that of humanity. There are times when I am indifferent to these questions; then again they seem to tear at me without mercy; all the more as those are matters kept within the privacy of the soul. It would be better to put them aside; but they are too important for that. We want to know what we are to expect, and arrange our life accordingly. I have tried to say to myself: "Stop, you will never leave that enchanted circle; why enter it at all?" I have every qualification to render myself a well-satisfied, cheerful animal; but I cannot always be satisfied with that. It is said the Slav temperament has a tendency towards mysticism. I have noticed that our greatest writers and poets end by becoming mystics. It is not surprising that lesser minds should be now and then troubled. As to myself I feel obliged to take notice of those inward struggles in order to get a faithful image of myself. Perhaps I feel also the want of justifying myself before my own conscience. For instance, with the great "I do not know" before me, I still observe the regulations of the Church; yet do not consider myself a hypocrite. This would be the case if, instead of the "I do not know," I could say "I know there is nothing." But our scepticism is not an open negation; it is rather a sorrowful, anxious suspicion that perhaps there is nothing,—a dense fog around our minds that stifles the breath and hides from us the light. I therefore stretch out my hands towards that sun that maybe shines beyond the mist. I fancy that not I alone am in that position, and that of all those who go to church and mass on Sundays the prayers might be condensed in these words: "O God! lift the mist!"
I cannot write coldly or dispassionately about all this. I keep religious observances for the simple reason that I long to believe, and since the sweet teaching of my childhood tells me that faith is a gift of grace, I am waiting for that grace. I am waiting that it may be given unto me; that my soul may believe unquestioningly, even as it believed in childhood. Those are my motives; no self-interest prompts me; it would be much easier to be a cheerful, contented animal. Since I am justifying my outward semblance of piety, I have some other less noble and more practical reasons. From the days of my childhood I have been accustomed to keep certain rules, and they have grown into a habit. Henry the Fourth said Paris was well worth a mass; so say I that the peace of those nearest is worth a mass; people of my class, as a rule, observe religious prescriptions, and I should protest against the outward symbols only in such a case if I could find something more conclusive to say than "I do not know." I go to church because I am a sceptic in regard to my own scepticism. It is not a comfortable feeling, and my soul drags one wing along the earth. But it would be much worse with me if I always pondered over these questions so earnestly as I have done while writing these last pages. Fortunately for me this is not the case. I have mentioned already that at times I am indifferent to them. Life carries me along, and although in the main I know what to think of its hollow pleasures, I give myself up to it altogether, and then the moral "to be, or not to be" has no meaning for me. A strange thing, about the power of which not much has been said, is the influence of social suggestion on the mind. In Paris, for instance, I feel happier not only because the continual mill deafens me,—I am swallowed up by the surging masses, and my mind is diverted by tricks of the fencing ring,—but also because the people there, without being conscious of it, live as if it were worth their while to put all their energies into this life, and as if beyond there was nothing but a chemical process. My pulse begins to beat in unison with theirs; I feel myself in harmony with my surroundings; amuse myself or bore myself, conquer or am conquered, but enjoy a comparative rest.
ROME, BABUINO, 13 January.
I have only four days left before my departure, and will now sum up what I said about myself. I am an individual rather worn out, very sensitive, and of a highly nervous temperament. I have a strongly developed consciousness of self, seconded by comparative culture, and taken altogether, may consider myself an intellectually developed being.
My scepticism debars me from all firm convictions. I look, observe, criticise, sometimes fancy I get hold of some essential truth, but am ready always to doubt even that. I have already said all that was necessary in reference to religion. As to my social creed I am a conservative so far as a man in my position is bound to be, and so far as conservatism suits me. No need to mention that I am far from considering conservatism as a dogma, which no one is allowed to touch or to criticise. I am too much civilized to take a party view of either aristocracy or democracy. I leave that as a pastime to those who live in the country, or in remote places where ideas, like fashions, are some ten years late. From the time when privileges were done away with, the question has been closed; but in remoter parts, where the world remains more or less stagnant, it has become not so much a question of principle as rather a question of vanity and nerves. In regard to myself, I like well-bred people,—people with brains and nerves, and look for them where they are most readily found. I like them as I like works of art, fine scenery, and beautiful women. From an aesthetic point of view, I possess refined nerves,—too refined, perhaps, owing to my early training and a naturally impressionable temperament. This aesthetic sensitiveness gives me as many delights as torments, and renders me one great service: it preserves me from cynicism or otherwise extreme corruption, and serves me instead of moral principle. I recoil from many things, not because they are wicked, but because they are ugly. From my aesthetic nerves I derive also a certain delicacy of feeling. Taken all in all, it seems to me that I am a man a little marred by life, decent enough though to say the truth, rather floating in mid-air because not supported by any dogma, either social or religious. I am also without an aim to which I could devote my life.
One word more about my abilities before concluding the synthesis. My father, my aunt, my colleagues, and sometimes strangers, consider them simply prodigious. I allow that my intellect has a certain glitter. But will the improductivite Slave scatter all the hopes invested in me? Considering all I have, or rather have not done up to this day, either for others or myself, I feel inclined to think that such will be the case. This confession costs me more than appears on the surface. My irony when I think of myself tastes bitter on the palate. There was something barren in the clay from which God formed the Ploszowskis, since on that soil everything springs up and grows so luxuriously, yet produces no fruit. Truly, if with this barrenness, this powerlessness to act, I possessed the abilities of a genius, it would be a strange kind of genius,—a genius without portfolio, as there are ministers of state without portfolio.
This definition, "a genius without portfolio" seems to fit me to perfection. I shall take out a patent of invention for the word. But the definition does not apply to me alone. Its name is legion. Side by side with the improductivite Slave goes the genius without portfolio; it is a pure product of the Slav soil. Once more I say its name is legion. I do not know another part of the world where so much ability is wasted, in which even those who bring forth something give so little, so incredibly little, in comparison with what God gave them.
ROME, BABUINO, 14 January.
Another letter from my aunt urging me to come. I am coming, I am coming, dear aunt, though God knows I am doing it out of love for you; otherwise I should greatly prefer to remain where I am. My father seems not well; from time to time he feels a strange numbness on the whole of his left side. At my urgent entreaties he has seen a physician, but I am quite sure the physic he received is safely stowed away in a cupboard, according to an old custom he has. Once he opened the mysterious receptacle and showed me a whole collection of bottles, pill-boxes, and powders, saying: "For mercy's sake! this would kill a strong man, let alone a sick one." Up to now, this quaint way of looking upon medicine has not done him any harm, but I am troubled about the future. Another reason for my unwillingness to go is my aunt's plan of campaign. Of course she is anxious to see me married. I do not know whether she has anything definite in view. God grant I may be wrong; but she does not deny the intention. "About an eligible parti like you," she writes, "there will be at once a war of the roses, you may be sure of that." I am tired and do not wish for any war, and least of all to end it like Henry VII. by a marriage. On the other hand,—I dare not tell my aunt, but may confess it to myself,—I do not like Polish women. I am thirty-five, and like other men that live much in society, I had my sentimental passages, among others, with Polish women, and from these encounters I carried away the impression that they are the most impossible and most wearying women in the world. I do not know whether, generally speaking, they are more virtuous than their French or Italian sisters; I only know that they are more pathetic. The very remembrance of it gives me a creepy sensation. I can understand an elegy over a broken pitcher when you behold the shards for the first time; but to go on with the same pathos over a much mended pitcher, looks more like a comic opera. A pleasant role that of the listener, whom courtesy bids to take it seriously.
Strange, fantastic women with fiery imagination and cold temperaments! In their sentiments there is neither cheerfulness nor even simplicity. They are in love with the outward forms of love, caring less for its intrinsic value. With French or Italian women after the first skirmishes, you may be sure of your "ergo." With a Pole it is different. Somebody said that if a man is mistaken and says two and two makes five, you may be able to set him right; a woman says two and two is a lamp, and you come against a blank wall. In a Polish woman's logic two and two may be not four, but a lamp, love, hatred, a cat, tears, duty, scorn; in brief, you cannot foresee anything, calculate upon anything, or guard against anything. It may be, after all, because of these very pitfalls that their virtue is better guarded than that of other women, if only for the reason that the beleaguering forces get mortally tired. But what struck me, and what I resented most, is that those pitfalls, barricades, and the whole array of defence are not so much erected for the repulse of the enemy as to give them the sensation of warfare. I spoke of this in a roundabout way with a clever woman only half a Pole, for her father was an Italian.
She listened to me for a while, then said at last:—
"It seems to me you are very much like the fox looking at the dovecote. He does not like, and it makes him wroth, to see the doves dwelling so high, and unlike the hens, always on the wing. All you have said tells in favor of Polish women."
"How do you make that out?"
"The more a Polish woman seems intolerable as somebody else's wife, the more desirable she is to have for one's own."
She had driven me into a corner, and I could not find an answer. Perhaps she is right, and I look upon it from a fox's point of view. There is also not the slightest doubt that if I were to marry, especially a Pole, I not only should search for her among the high flying doves, but I should choose a perfectly white one.
But I am like the chickens when asked in what sauce they would like to be served; I do not want to be dished up at all. Now, to return to my grievance against you, dear ladies, you are before everything in love with love, and not with the lover. Every one of you is a queen in her own rights, and in this you differ from other women; every one seems to confer a boon and a favor in permitting herself to be loved; none agrees to be only an addition or completion of a man's life, who, besides matrimony, has some other aims in life. You want us to live for you, instead of living for us. Last, but not least, you love your children more than your husband. His final fate is that of a satellite turning forever round in the same orbit. I have seen this and noticed it very often in a general way; but now and then there happens to be found a pure diamond too among the chaff. No, my queens and princesses, permit me to worship you from a safe distance.
Fancy putting aside all other aims, all ideals, in order to burn incense every day at the shrine of a woman, and that woman one's own wife. No, dear ladies, that is not sufficient to fill a man's life.
Nevertheless, that second self sometimes mutters, "And what else is there for you to do? If, anybody it is you who are fittest for the sacrifice, for what are your aims or your intentions? No! the deuce and all! To change the whole tenor of one's life, renounce old habits, comforts, pleasures, it must be a great love, indeed, that could induce me to such a venture. Marriage means a most amazing act of faith in a woman, I could never summon courage enough to commit. No, most decidedly, I do not wish to be served up in any sauce whatever."
WARSAW, 21 January.
I arrived here to-day. I broke my journey at Vienna which made it less tiring, but my nerves do not let me sleep, so I take up my journal which has grown as a friend to me. What joy there was in the house at my arrival, and what a dear, kind soul that aunt of mine is! I do believe she is awake now for very joy. She could scarcely eat any dinner. When in the country at Ploszow, she is continually wrangling with her land-agent, Pan Chwastowski, a burly old nobleman who does not give in to her one whit. Sometimes their disputes reach to such a pitch that a catastrophe seems imminent; then suddenly my aunt relaxes, falls to with an appetite and eats her dinner with a certain determination. To-day she had only the servants to scold, and that was not sufficient to give her an appetite. She was in capital spirits though, and the loving glances she bestowed on me beggar description. In intimate circles I am called my aunt's fetich, which makes her very angry.
Of course my fears and presentiments have not deceived me. There are not only plans, but also a definite object. After dinner my aunt is in the habit of walking up and down the room, and often thinks aloud. Therefore, in spite of the mystery she deems fit to surround herself with, I heard the following monologue:—
"He is young, handsome, rich, intelligent; she would be a fool if she did not fall in love with him at once."
To-morrow I am to go to a picnic the gentlemen are giving for the ladies. They say it is going to be a grand entertainment.
WARSAW, 25 January.
I am often bored at balls. As a homo sapiens and an eligible parti, I abhor them; as an artist, that is, artist without portfolio, I now and then like them. What a splendid sight, for instance, that broad staircase well lit up, where, amid a profusion of flowers the women ascend to the ball-room. They all appear tall, and when not seen from below (because the training robes destroy the illusion) they remind one of the angels on Jacob's ladder. I like the motion, the light, the flowers, and the gauzy material which enwraps the young girls as in a soft mist; and then those shoulders, necks, and arms which released from the warm cloaks seem at once to grow firm and crisp as marble. My sense of smell, too, is gratified, for I delight in good perfumes.
The picnic was a great success. To give Staszewski his due, he knows how to arrange these things. I arrived together with my aunt, but lost sight of her in the entrance hall, for Staszewski himself came down to lead her upstairs. The dear old lady had on her ermine cloak she uses on great occasions, and which her friends call her robe of state. When I entered the ballroom I remained near the door and looked around. What a strange sensation when, after a long interval, one comes back to once familiar scenes. I feel I am a part of them, and yet I look at them and criticise them as if I were a stranger. Especially the women attracted my attention,—I must admit, fastidious as I am, that our society is very choice. I saw pretty faces and plain faces, but all stamped with the same well-bred refinement. The necks and shoulders, in spite of the softly rounded contours, simply reminded me of Sevres china. There is a restful elegance, something daintily finished, in all of them. Truly, they do not imitate Europe,—they are Europe.
I remained there about a quarter of an hour indolently musing which of all these dainty damsels my aunt had chosen for me, when Sniatynski and his wife came up. I had seen him only a few months ago at Rome, and had known her, too, for some time. I like her very much; she has a sweet face and belongs to those exceptional Poles that do not absorb their husband's whole life, but surrender their own. Presently a young girl slipped in between us, and while greeting Pani Sniatynska, put out a small hand encased in a white kid glove and said:—
"Don't you know me, Leon?"
I felt slightly perplexed at this question, for indeed I did not know who it was that greeted me thus familiarly; but not wishing to seem rude, I smiled and pressed the little hand, saying, "Of course I do." I must have looked a little foolish because, presently Pani Sniatynska burst out laughing and said, "But he does not recognize you; it is Aniela P."
Aniela, my cousin! No wonder I did not recognize her. The last time I saw her, some ten or eleven years ago at Ploszow, she wore a short frock and pink stockings. I remember the midges had stung her about the legs, and she stamped on the ground like a little pony. How could I dream that these white shoulders, this breast covered with violets, this pretty face with the dark eyes, in short, this girl in the full bloom of maidenhood, was the same as the little wagtail on thin feet I had known formerly. How pretty she had grown; a fine butterfly had come from that chrysalis. I renewed my greeting very heartily. Afterwards when the Sniatynskis had left us she told me that my aunt and her mother had sent her to fetch me. I offered my arm and we went across the room.
All at once it burst in upon me. It was she, Aniela, my aunt had in her mind. That then was the secret, the surprise meant for me. My aunt always used to be fond of her, and troubled herself not a little over Pani P.'s financial difficulties. I only wondered why these ladies were not stopping with my aunt; but I did not ponder over it long; I preferred to look at Aniela, who naturally interested me more than the average girl. As we had to make our way to the other end of the room and the crush was great, I had ample time for conversation and scrutiny. Fashion this year has it that gloves should be worn halfway up the elbow, so I noticed that the arm which rested on mine had a slightly dusky shade, covered as it was with a light down. And yet she could not be called a brunette. Her hair is a light brown with a gleam of bronze. Her eyes are light too, but appear dark, shaded as they are by long eyelashes; the eyebrows, on the contrary, are dark and very pretty. The characteristic of this little head with the low brow is that exuberance of hair, eyebrows, eyelashes, and that down, which on the face is very slight. This at some future time may spoil her beauty, but at present she is so young that it points only to an exuberance of organism, and shows that she is not a doll, but a woman full of warm, active life.
I do not deny that, fastidious as are my nerves and not easily thrilled, I fell under a spell. She is my type exactly. My aunt, who, if she ever heard about Darwin would call him a wicked writer, has unconsciously adopted his theory of natural selection. Yes, she is my type. They have baited the hook this time with a dainty morsel.
An electric current seemed to pass from her arm into mine. Besides I noticed that she too seemed pleased with me, and that naturally raises one's spirits. My scrutiny from an artistic point of view proved highly satisfactory. There are faces that seem to be a translation from music or poetry into human shape. Such a face is Aniela's. There is nothing commonplace about it. As children are inoculated for small-pox so the upper classes inoculate modesty in their girls; there is something so very innocent in this face, but through that very innocence peeps out a warm temperament. What a combination!—as if some one said, "An innocent Satan!"
Unsophisticated as Aniela is, she is yet a little bit of a coquette, and quite conscious of her attractions. Knowing for instance that she has beautiful eyelashes, she very often drops her eyes. She has also a graceful way of lifting her head and looking at the person she is speaking to. In the beginning she was slightly artificial, from shyness I fancy, but soon afterwards we chatted together as if we had never been separated since those times at Ploszow. My aunt is highly amusing with her absentmindedness, but I should not care to have her for a fellow-conspirator. Scarcely had we approached the two elderly ladies and I exchanged greetings with Aniela's mother, when my aunt, noticing my animation, turned to her companion and said aloud, "How pretty she looks in those violets! It was, after all, a happy thought that he should see her the first time at a ball."
Aniela's mother grew very confused, and so did Aniela, and the truth began to dawn upon me why it was the ladies were not staying with my aunt. This had been Pani P.'s idea; she and my aunt had been plotting together. I suppose Aniela had not been taken into confidence, but thanks to female perspicacity could not help guessing how matters stood.
To put an end to the embarrassing situation I turned to her and said, "I warn you that I am not very proficient at dancing, but as they will carry you off any moment, will you grant me a waltz?"
Aniela for all answer handed me her tablets and said resolutely, "Put down as many as you like."
I confess that I do not like the role of a puppet pulled by a string, therefore I resolved to take an active part in the old ladies' politics. I took the tablets and wrote, "Did you understand that they want us to marry?"
Aniela read it and changed color. She remained silent for a moment, as if not trusting her voice, or hesitating what to say; at last she lifted her eyelashes and looking straight into my eyes she replied, "Yes."
It was now her turn to question me, not in words but with her eyes. I already knew I had made a favorable impression on her, and if she had an inkling of the truth her mind must needs dwell a good deal on me. I interpreted the look of her eyes thus: "I am aware my mother and my aunt want us to become acquainted, to know each other well. And you?"
Instead of an answer I put my arm around her waist, and lightly drawing her towards me, led her into the mazes of a waltz. I remembered my fencing practice.
A mute answer could not but stir up fancies in a girl's mind, especially after what I had written on the tablets. I thought to myself: "What harm is there if her fancy turns into my direction? As far as I am concerned I shall not go a step further than I intend, and if her fancy travels further I cannot help it." Aniela dances exquisitely, and she danced this waltz as a woman should, with a certain vehemence and self-abandon at the same time. I noticed that the violets on her breast rose and fell far quicker than the quiet step of the dance warranted. I understood that she felt agitated. Love is a law of nature, kept under control by a careful bringing-up. But once the girl is told that she may love this one or that, the chance is she will obey very readily. Aniela evidently expected that after I had been bold enough to write those few words I would allude to it further, but I kept aloof on purpose to leave her in suspense.
I wished also to look at her from a distance. Decidedly she is my type. Women of that kind have a special attraction for me. Oh, if only she were thirty, and not a girl they expect me to marry!
WARSAW, 30 January.
They have come to stay with us. Yesterday I spent all the day with Aniela. She has more pages to her soul than most girls at her age. On many of these pages the future will write, but there is room for many beautiful things. She feels and understands everything, and is an excellent listener, and follows the conversation with her large, intelligent eyes. A woman that can listen possesses one more attraction, because she flatters man's vanity. I do not know whether Aniela is conscious of this, or whether it be her womanly instinct. Maybe she has heard so much about me from my aunt that she deems every word I say an oracle. She is decidedly not without coquetry. To-day I asked her what she wished for most in life. She answered, "To see Rome;" then her eyelashes fell, and she looked indescribably pretty. She sees that I like her, and it makes her happy. Her coquetry is charming, because it comes straight from a delighted heart, and tries to please the chosen object. I have not the slightest doubt that her heart is fluttering towards me, as a moth flutters into the candle. Poor child! she feels the elders have given their mute consent, and she obeys only too willingly. I can watch the process from hour to hour.
Perhaps I ought to inquire of myself, "If you do not want to marry her, why are you trying to make her love you?" But I do not choose to answer that question. I feel at peace here, and restful! After all, what is it I am doing? I try not to appear more foolish or disagreeable or less courteous than I am by nature, that is all.
Aniela appeared to-day at breakfast in a loose sailor-dress, which only just betrayed the outline of her shape, and she looked bewitching. Her eyes were still full of dreaminess and sleep. It is something wonderful what an impression she is making on me.
My aunt is giving an entertainment in honor of Aniela. I am paying visits and leaving cards right and left. I called upon the Sniatynskis, and sat with them for a long time, because I feel there at home. Sniatynski and his wife are always wrangling with each other, but their life is different from that of most other married people. As a rule, it happens when there is one cloak, each tries to get possession of it; these two dispute because he wishes her to have it, and she wants it all for him. I like them immensely,—it is so refreshing to see there is still happiness out of novels. With all that, he is so clever; as sensitive as a Stradivarius violin, and quite conscious of his happiness. He wanted it, and has got it. I envy him. I always used to like his conversation. They offered me some black coffee; it is only at literary people's houses one can get such coffee. He asked me what I thought of Warsaw after so long an absence. There was also some talk about the ball, especially from the lady's part. She seems to guess something about my aunt's plans, and wants to have one of her rosy fingers in the pie,—especially as she comes from the same part of the country as Aniela.
We touched personal matter very slightly, but had a lively discussion about society in general. I told him what I thought about its refinement; and as Sniatynski, though he criticises it himself mercilessly, is always greedy to hear its praises sung, it put him into capital spirits.
"I like to hear you say so," he remarked, "as you have so many chances to make comparisons, and are rather inclined to look at the world from a pessimist's point of view."
"I do not know whether what I just said does not lean that way."
"How do you prove that?" asked Sniatynski, quickly.
"You see, refined culture might be compared to cases with glass and china, upon which is written, 'Fragile.' For you, a spiritual son of Athens, for me and a few others, it is pleasant to be in touch with it; but if you want to build anything on such foundation, you will find the beams coming down on your head. Don't you think those refined dilettanti of life are bound to get the worst in a struggle with a people of strong nerves, a tough skin, and iron muscles?"
Sniatynski, who is very lively, jumped up and walked about the room, then rushed at me impetuously. "You have seen only one side of the picture, and not the best one, either; do not think there is nothing more to be seen. You come from abroad, and pronounce judgment upon us as if you had lived here all your life."
"I do not know what else there may be, but I know that nowhere in the world is there such a vast difference between the classes. On one side, the most refined culture,—over-refined, if anything; on the other, absolute barbarism and ignorance."
A long discussion followed, and it was dusk before I left them. He said if I came oftener to see them, he would show me the connecting link between the two classes, introduce me to men who were neither over-refined, ignorant, nor sickening with dilettantism, but strong men, who knew what they wanted, and were going straight for it.
When I was going away, Sniatynski called out after me:
"From such as you nothing good will come, but your children may be men; but you and such like must lose every penny you possess, otherwise even your grandchildren will do nothing useful."
I still think that on the whole I was right. I have taken special notice of this conversation, as this discrepancy has occupied my thoughts ever since my arrival. The fact is that between the classes there is a vast gulf that precludes all mutual understanding, and makes simultaneous efforts simply impossible. At least, I look upon it in that light. Sevres china and common clay,—nothing between; one tres fragile, the other, Ovidius's "rudis indigestaque moles." Of course Sevres china sooner or later breaks, and from the clay the future may mould anything it likes.
Yesterday my aunt's entertainment took place. Aniela was the cynosure of every eye. Her white shoulders peeping out from a cloud of muslin, gauze, or whatever it is called, she looked like a Venus rising from the foam. I fancy it is already gossiped about that I am going to marry her. I noticed that her eyes often strayed in my direction, and she listened to her partners with an absent, distracted expression.
Guileless child! she cannot hide the truth, and shows so plainly what is going on in her heart that I could not help seeing it, unless I were blind. And she is so humble and quietly happy when I am with her! I like her immensely, and begin to waver. Sniatynski is so happy in his home life! It is not the first time I have asked myself whether Sniatynski be more foolish or wiser than I. Of the many problems of life, I have not solved one. I am nothing; scepticism is sapping my whole system; I am not happy, and am very tired. He, with less knowledge than I, does useful work, has a good and handsome wife, the rogue! and his very philosophical principles, adapted to life, help to make him happy. No, it must be acknowledged, it is I who am the more foolish of the two.
The keynote of Sniatynski's philosophy is found in his dogmas of life. Before he was married he said to me: "There are two things I never approach with scepticism, and do not criticise: to me as a literary man, the community is a dogma; as a private individual, the beloved woman." I thought to myself then: "My mind is bolder,—it analyzes even that." But I see now that this boldness has not led me to anything. And how lovely she is,—that little dogma of mine with the long eyelashes! Decidedly, I am going the way I did not mean to go. The singular attraction which draws me towards her cannot be explained by the law of natural selection. Ho! there is something more, and I know what it is. She loves me with all the freshness of her honest heart, as I was never loved before. How different from the fencing practice of former years, when thrusts were dealt or guarded against! The woman who is much liked, and who in her turn loves, is sure to win in the end if she perseveres.
"The stray bird," says the poet Slowacki, "comes back to his haven of rest and peace all the more eagerly after the lonesomeness of his stormy flight. Nothing takes so firm a hold upon a man's heart as the consciousness that he is loved."
A few pages before, I wrote God knows what about Polish women; but if any one fancies that for the sake of a few written sentences I feel myself bound to pursue a certain course, he is vastly mistaken.
How that girl satisfies my artistic taste is simply wonderful. After the ball, came the pleasantest moment when, everybody gone, we sat down and had some tea. Wanting to see how the world looked outside, I drew back the heavy curtains. It was eight o'clock in the morning and a flood of daylight poured into the room. It was so perfectly blue, seen by the glare of the lamps, that it reminded me of the Capri grotto. And there stood Aniela, with that blue haze around her white shoulders. She looked so lovely that all my resolutions tottered and fell to pieces; I felt positively grateful to her for this glimpse of beauty, as if it were her doing. I pressed her hand more tenderly than I had ever done before when saying good-night to her.
"Good-morning, you mean, not good-night,—good-morning."
Either I am blind and deaf or her eyes and voice expressed: "I love you, I love you."
I do the same—almost.
My aunt looking at us gave a low grunt of contentment. I saw tears shining in her eyes.
To-morrow we leave here for Ploszow.
PLOSZOW, 5 February.
This is my second day in the country. We had a splendid drive. The weather was clear and frosty. The snow creaked under the runners of the sledge and glittered and sparkled in the fields. Towards sunset the vast plain assumed pink and purple shades. The rooks, cawing and flapping their wings, flew in and out the lime trees. Winter, the strong, homely winter, is a beautiful thing. There is a certain vigor in it, and dignity, and what is more, so much sincerity. Like a true friend, who, regardless as to consequences, hurls cutting truths, it smites you between the eyes without asking leave. By way of compensation it bestows upon you some of its own vigor. We were all of us glad to leave the town—the elder ladies, that their pet scheme might be brought to a climax by closer companionship; I, because I was near Aniela; she, maybe for the same reason, felt happy too. She bent down several times to kiss my aunt's hands, apropos of nothing, out of sheer content. She looked very pretty in a long, fluffy boa and a coquettish fur cap, from under which the dark eyes and the almost childish face peeped forth.
How young she looks.
I feel at home in Ploszow, it is so quiet and restful; and I like the huge, old-fashioned chimneys. The woods are to my aunt as the apple of her eye, but she does not grudge herself fuel; and big logs, which are crackling and burning there from morning until night, make it look bright and cheerful. We sat around the fire the whole afternoon. I brought out some of my reminiscences, and told them about Rome and its treasures. The three women listened with such devoutness that it made me feel ridiculous in my own eyes. From time to time, while I was talking, my aunt cast a searching glance at Aniela to see whether she expressed enough admiration. But there is too much of that already. Yesterday she said to me:—
"Another man might spend there his whole life and not see half the beautiful things you do."
My aunt added with dogmatic firmness,—
"I have always said so."
It is as well that there is not another sceptic here, for his presence would embarrass me not a little.
A certain dissonant chord in our little circle is Aniela's mother. The poor soul has had so many sorrows and anxieties that her cheerfulness, if ever she had any, is a thing of the past. She is simply afraid of the future, and instinctively suspects pitfalls even in good fortune. She was very unhappy in her married life, and afterwards has had continual worries about her estate, which is very much involved. In addition to all this she suffers from nervous headaches.
Aniela belongs to that category of women who never trouble themselves about money matters. I like her for that, for it proves that she thinks of higher things. For the matter of that, everything in her pleases and delights me now.
Tenderness grows on the soil of attraction by the senses, as quick as flowers after a warm rain. To-day, in the morning, I saw the maid carrying up her gown and boots; this moved me very much, especially the little, little boots, as if the wearing of them was the crown of all virtues in Aniela.
PLOSZOW, 8 or 9 February.
My aunt has taken up her visual warfare with Pan Chwastowski. This is such an original habit of hers that I must describe one of their disputes. The dear lady can evidently not exist without it, or at least not enjoy her dinner; Chwastowski, again, who, by the bye, is an excellent manager, is a compound of brimstone and saltpetre, and does not allow anybody to thwart him; therefore the quarrels sometimes reach the acute state. When entering the dining-room they eye each other with suspicious glances. The first shot is fired by my aunt while eating her soup.
"It is a very long time, Pan Chwastowski, since I heard anything about the winter crops, and Pan Chwastowski, instead of giving me the information, speaks about anything but what I want to know."
"They were very promising in autumn, my lady; now they are covered by a yard or two of snow,—how am I to know the state they are in? I am not the Lord Almighty."
"I beg of you, Pan Chwastowski, not to take the Lord's name in vain."
"I do not look under His snow, therefore do not offend Him."
"Do you mean to insinuate that I do?"
"Pan Chwastowski, you are unbearable."
"Oho! bearable enough because he bears a great deal."
In this or that way the screw goes round. There is scarcely a meal but they have some differences. Then my aunt at last subsides, and seems to wreak the remnants of her anger on the dinner. She enjoys a hearty appetite. As the dinner goes on she gradually brightens up and recovers her usual spirits. After dinner, I offer my arm to Aniela's mother, my aunt accepts Pan Chwastowski's, and presently they sip their black coffee in peace and perfect amity. My aunt inquires after his sons, and he kisses her hands. I saw those sons of his when they were at the university, and I hear they are promising young men, but great radicals.
Aniela used to get frightened at first at these prandial disputes, until I gave her the clue to the real state of things. So now when the first signal of battle is given, she looks at me slyly from under those long lashes, and there is a little smile lurking in the corners of her mouth. She is so pretty then I feel tempted to take her in my arms. I have never met a woman with such delicate veins on her temples.
Truly a metamorphosis of Ovidius on the earth and within me! The frost has gone, the fine weather vanished, and there is Egyptian darkness. I cannot describe it better than by saying the weather is foul. What an abominable climate! In Rome, at the worst, the sun shines at intervals half a dozen times a day; here lamps ought to be lit these two days. The black, heavy mist seems to permeate one's thoughts, and paint them a uniform gray. My aunt and Pan Chwastowski were more intent than usual upon warfare. He maintained that my aunt, by not allowing the woods to be touched, causes the timber to spoil; my aunt replied that others did their best to cut down all the timber, and not a bit of forest would soon be left in the country. "I am getting old; let the trees grow old too." This reminds me of the nobleman of vast possessions who only allowed as much land to be cultivated as to where the bark of his dog could be heard.
Aniela's mother, without intending it, gave me to-day a bad quarter of an hour. Alone with me in the conservatory, she began telling me, with maternal boastfulness, that an acquaintance of mine, a certain Pan Kromitzki, had made overtures for Aniela's hand.
I had a sensation as if somebody tried to remove a splinter from my flesh with a fork. As the blue waves of light had stirred up within me a tender feeling for Aniela,—although it was no merit of hers,—so now the wooing of such a man as Kromitzki threw cold water upon the nascent affections. I know that ape Kromitzki, and do not like him. He comes from Austrian Silesia, where it seems they had owned estates. In Rome he used to say that his family had borne the title of count already in the fifteenth century, and at the hotels put himself down as "Graf von Kromitzki." But for his small, black eyes, not unlike coffee-berries, and his black hair, his head looks as if cut out from a cheese-rind,—for such is his complexion. He reminds me of a death's-head, and I simply have a physical loathing for him. Ugh! how the thought of him in connection with Aniela has spoiled her image. I am quite aware that she is in no way responsible for Kromitzki's intentions; but it has damaged her in my eyes. I do not know why her mother should think it necessary to tell me these details; if it be a warning, it has missed its aim. She must have some grand qualities, this Pani P., since she has managed to steer her life through so many difficulties, and at the same time educated her daughter so well; but she is clumsy and tedious with her headaches and her macaronism.
"I confess," she said, "that the alliance suited me. At times I almost break down under the weight of troubles. I am a woman with little knowledge of business, and what I acquired I have paid for with my health; but I had to think of my child. Kromitzki is very clever. He has large concerns at Odessa, and is at present engaged in some large speculations in naphtha at Baku, or some such place, 'que sais-je.' It seems there is some difficulty about his not being a Russian subject. If he married Aniela he might clear the estate; and as an extensive landowner he would have no difficulty in getting naturalized."
"What does Aniela say to this?" I asked impatiently.
"She does not care for him, but is a good and obedient child. I am anxious to see her married before I die."
I did not care to prolong the conversation, which irritated me more than I can tell; and though I understand well enough, if that match has not been arranged, it was Aniela's doing, yet I feel aggrieved that she should allow a man like that even to look at her. For me this would be a mere question of nerves. I forget, however, that others are not constituted like me, and that Kromitzki, in spite of his cadaverous face, passes among women as a good-looking man.
I wonder what his affairs are. I forgot to ask whether he is at Warsaw; most likely he is, as he goes there every winter. As to his business, it may be very magnificent, but I doubt whether it be on a solid basis. I am not a speculator, and could not for the life of me transact a stock-exchange affair; but I am shrewd enough to know it. Besides I am a close observer, and quick to draw conclusions. Therefore I do not believe in noblemen with a genius for speculation. I am afraid Kromitzki's is neither an inherited nor innate quality, but a neurosis driving him into a certain direction. I have seen examples of that kind. Now and then blind fortune favors the nobleman-speculator, and he accumulates wealth; but I have not seen one who did not come to grief before he died.
Capacities such as these are either inherited or acquired by early training. Chwastowski's boys will be able to do something in that way because their father lost by accident all his fortune, and they have to make a fresh start. But he who with ready capital, without commercial tradition or professional knowledge, embarks upon commerce, is bound to come to grief. Speculation cannot be based upon illusions, and there is too much of that in the speculations of our noblemen. Upon the whole, I wish Pan von Kromitzki every luck!
Pax! pax! pax! The painful impression has vanished. What keen perceptions Aniela has! I endeavored to be cheerful, though I felt out of spirits, and I do not think there was any perceptible change in my behavior; yet she perceived a change at once. To-day, when we looked at the albums and were alone,—which happens pretty often, on purpose I suppose,—she grew embarrassed and changed color. I saw at once she wanted to say something, and did not dare. For a single moment the mad thought flashed across my brain that she was about to confess her love for me. But as quick as the thought, I remembered it was a Polish girl I had before me. A mere chit of a girl—I beg her pardon, a young princess,—would rather die than be the first to confess her love. When asked she gives her assent rather as a favor. Besides, Aniela very quickly corrected my mistake; suddenly closing the album she said in a hesitating voice: "What is the matter with you, Leon? There is something the matter, is there not?"