Selected Polish Tales online

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_This selection of Tales by Polish authors was first published in
'The World's Classics' in 1921 and reprinted in 1928, 1942, and












My friend the late Miss Else C. M. Benecke left a number of Polish
stories in rough translation, and I am carrying out her wishes in
editing them and handing them over to English readers. In spite of
failing health during the last years of her life, she worked hard at
translations from this beautiful but difficult language, and the two
volumes, _Tales by Polish Authors_ and _More Tales by Polish
Authors_, published by Mr. Basil Blackwell at Oxford, were among the
first attempts to make modern Polish fiction known in this country. In
both these volumes I collaborated with her.

England is fortunate in counting Joseph Conrad among her own novelists;
although a Pole by birth he is one of the greatest masters of English
style. The Polish authors who have written in their own language have
perhaps been most successful in the short story. Often it is so slight
that it can hardly be called a story, but each of these sketches
conveys a distinct atmosphere of the country and the people, and shows
the individuality of each writer. The unhappy state of Poland for more
than 150 years has placed political and social problems in the
foreground of Polish literature. Writers are therefore judged and
appraised by their fellow-countrymen as much by their patriotism as by
their literary and artistic merits.

Of the authors whose work is presented in this volume _Prus_
(Aleksander Glowacki), the veteran of modern Polish novelists, is the
one most loved by his own countrymen. His books are written partly with
a moral object, as each deals with a social evil. But while he exposes
the evil, his warm heart and strong sense of justice - combined with a
sense of humour - make him fair and even generous to all.

The poignant appeal of _Szymánski's_ stories lies in the fact that
they are based on personal experiences. He was banished to Yakutsk in
Siberia for six years when he was quite a young man and had barely
finished his studies at the University of Warsaw, at a time when every
profession of radicalism, however moderate, was punished severely by
the Russian authorities. He died, a middle-aged man, during the War,
after many years of literary and journalistic activity in the interest
of his country. Neither he nor Prus lived to see Poland free and
republican, an ideal for which they had striven.

_Zeromski_ is a writer of intense feeling. If Prus's kindly and
simple tales are the most beloved, Zeromski's more subtle psychological
treatment of his subjects is the most admired, and he is said to mark
an epoch in Polish fiction. In the two short sketches contained in this
volume, as well as in most of his short stories and longer novels, the
dominant note is human suffering.

_Reymont_, who is a more impersonal writer and more detached from
his subject, is perhaps the most artistic among the authors of short
stories. His volume entitled _Peasants_, from which the two
sketches in this collection are taken, gives very powerful and
realistic pictures of life in the villages.

_Kaden-Bandrowski_ is a very favourite author in his own country,
as many of his short stories deal with Polish life during the Great
War. In the early part of the War he joined the Polish Legions which
formed the nucleus of Pilsudski's army, and shared their varying
fortunes. During the greater part of this time he edited a radical
newspaper for his soldiers, in whom he took a great interest. The
story, _The Sentence_, was translated by me from a French
translation kindly made by the author.

Mme _Rygier-Nalkowska_, who, with Kaden-Bandrowski, belongs to the
youngest group of Polish writers, is a strong feminist of courageous
views, and a keen satirist of certain national and social conventions.
The present volume only contains a short sketch - a personal experience
of hers during the early part of the War. It would be considered a very
daring thing for a Polish lady to venture voluntarily into the zone of
the Russian army, but her little sketch shows the individual Russian to
be as human as any other soldier. This sketch and the first of
Reymont's have been translated by Mr. Joseph Solomon, whose knowledge
of Slavonic languages makes him a most valuable co-operator.

My share in the work has been to put Miss Benecke's literal translation
into a form suitable for publication, and to get into touch with the
authors or their representatives, to whom I would now tender my
grateful thanks for their courteous permission to issue this volume,
viz. to Mme Glowacka, widow of 'Prus', to the sons of the late Mr.
Szymánski, to MM. Zeromski, Reymont, Kaden-Bandrowski, and to Mme
Rygier-Nalkowska, all of Warsaw.







The river Bialka springs from under a hill no bigger than a cottage;
the water murmurs in its little hollow like a swarm of bees getting
ready for their flight.

For the distance of fifteen miles the Bialka flows on level ground.
Woods, villages, trees in the fields, crucifixes by the roadside show
up clearly and become smaller and smaller as they recede into the
distance. It is a bit of country like a round table on which human
beings live like a butterfly covered by a blue flower. What man finds
and what another leaves him he may eat, but he must not go too far or
fly too high.

Fifteen to twenty miles farther to the south the country begins to
change. The shallow banks of the Bialka rise and retreat from each
other, the flat fields become undulating, the path leads ever more
frequently and steeply up and down hill.

The plain has disappeared and given place to a ravine; you are
surrounded by hills of the height of a many-storied house; all are
covered with bushes; sometimes the ascent is steep, sometimes gradual.
The first ravine leads into a second, wilder and narrower, thence into
a succession of nine or ten. Cold and dampness cling to you when you
walk through them; you climb one of the hills and find yourself
surrounded by a network of forking and winding ravines.

A short distance from the river-banks the landscape is again quite
different. The hills grow smaller and stand separate like great
ant-hills. You have emerged from the country of ravines into the broad
valley of the Bialka, and the bright sun shines full into your eyes.

If the earth is a table on which Providence has spread a banquet for
creation, then the valley of the Bialka is a gigantic, long-shaped dish
with upturned rim. In the winter this dish is white, but at other
seasons it is like majolica, with forms severe and irregular, but
beautiful. The Divine Potter has placed a field at the bottom of the
dish and cut it through from north to south with the ribbon of the
Bialka sparkling with waves of sapphire blue in the morning, crimson in
the evening, golden at midday, and silver in moonlit nights.

When He had formed the bottom, the Great Potter shaped the rim, taking
care that each side should possess an individual physiognomy.

The west bank is wild; the field touches the steep gravel hills, where
a few scattered hawthorn bushes and dwarf birches grow. Patches of
earth show here and there, as though the turf had been peeled. Even the
hardiest plants eschew these patches, where instead of vegetation the
surface presents clay and strata of sand, or else rock showing its
teeth to the green field.

The east bank has a totally different character; it forms an
amphitheatre with three tiers. The first tier above the field is of
mould and contains a row of cottages surrounded by trees: this is the
village. On the second tier, where the ground is clay, stands the
manor-house, almost on top of the village, with which an avenue of old
lime-trees connects it. To the right and left extend the manor-fields,
large and rectangular, sown with wheat, rye, and peas, or else lying
fallow. The sandy soil of the third tier is sown with rye or oats and
fringed by the pine-forest, its contours showing black against the sky.

The northern ridge contains little hills standing singly. One of them
is the highest in the neighbourhood and is crowned by a solitary pine.
This hill, together with two others, is the property of the
gospodarz[1] The gospodarstwo is like a hermitage; it is a long way
from the village and still farther from the manor-house.

[Footnote 1: _Gospodarz_: the owner of a small holding, as
distinct from the villager, who owns no land and is simply an
agricultural labourer. The word, which means host, master of the house,
will be used throughout the book. _Gospodyni_: hostess, mistress
of the holding. _Gospodarstwo_: the property.]

Josef Slimak.

Slimak's cottage is by the roadside, the front door opening on to the
road, the back door into the yard; the cowhouse and pigsty are under
one roof, the barn, stable, and cart-shed forming the other three sides
of the square courtyard.

The peasants chaff Slimak for living in exile like a Sibiriak.[1] It is
true, they say, that he lives nearer to the church, but on the other
hand he has no one to open his mouth to.

[Footnote 1: Sibiriak: a person of European birth or extraction living
in Siberia.]

However, his solitude is not complete. On a warm autumn day, when the
white-coated gospodarz is ploughing on the hill with a pair of horses,
you can see his wife and a girl, both in red petticoats, digging up

Between the hills the thirteen-year-old Jendrek[1] minds the cows and
performs strange antics meanwhile to amuse himself. If you look more
closely you will also find the eight-year-old Stasiek[2] with hair as
white as flax, who roams through the ravines or sits under the lonely
pine on the hill and looks thoughtfully into the valley.

[Footnote 1: Polish spelling, _Jedrek_ (pronounced as given,
Jendrek, with the French sound of _en_): Andrew.]

[Footnote 2: _Stasiek_: diminutive of Stanislas.]

That gospodarstwo - a drop in the sea of human interest - was a small
world in itself which had gone through various phases and had a history
of its own.

For instance, there was the time when Josef Slimak had scarcely seven
acres of land and only his wife in the cottage. Then there came two
surprises, his wife bore him a son - Jendrek, - and as the result of the
servituty[1] his holding was increased by three acres.

[Footnote 1: _Servituty_ are pieces of land which, on the
abolition of serfdom, the landowners had to cede to the peasants
formerly their serfs. The settlement was left to the discretion of the
owners, and much bargaining and discontent on both sides resulted
therefrom; the peasants had to pay percentage either in labour or in
produce to the landowner.]

Both these circumstances created a great change in the gospodarz's
life; he bought another cow and pig and occasionally hired a labourer.

Some years later his second son, Stasiek, was born. Then Slimakowa[1]
hired a woman by way of an experiment for half a year to help her with
the work.

[Footnote 1: Slimakowa: Polish form for Mrs. Slimak.]

Sobieska stayed for nine months, then one night she escaped to the
village, her longing for the public-house having become too strong. Her
place was taken by 'Silly Zoska'[1] for another six months. Slimakowa
was always hoping that the work would grow less, and she would be able
to dispense with a servant. However, 'Silly Zoska' stayed for six
years, and when she went into service at the manor the work at the
cottage had not grown less. So the gospodyni engaged a fifteen-year-old
orphan, Magda, who preferred to go into service, although she had a
cow, a bit of land, and half a cottage of her own. She said that her
uncle beat her too much, and that her other relations only offered her
the cold comfort that the more he applied the stick the better it would
be for her.

[Footnote: Zoska: diminutive of Sophia.]

Up till then Slimak had chiefly done his own farm work and rarely hired
a labourer. This still left him time to go to work at the manor with
his horses, or to carry goods from the town for the Jews.

When, however, he was summoned more and more often to the manor, he
found that the day-labourer was not sufficient, and began to look out
for a permanent farm-hand.

One autumn day, after his wife had been rating him severely for not yet
having found a farmhand, it chanced that Maciek Owczarz,[1] whose foot
had been crushed under a cart, came out of the hospital. The lame man's
road led him past Slimak's cottage; tired and miserable he sat down on
a stone by the gate and looked longingly into the entrance. The
gospodyni was boiling potatoes for the pigs, and the smell was so good,
as the little puffs of steam spread along the highroad, that it went
into the very pit of Maciek's stomach. He sat there in fascination,
unable to move.

[Footnote 1: Pronunciation approximately: Ovcharge. _Maciek_
(pron. Machik): Matthew.]

'Is that you, Owczarz?' Slimakowa asked, hardly recognizing the poor
wretch in his rags.

'Indeed, it is I,' the man answered miserably.

'They said in the village that you had been killed.'

'I have been worse off than that; I have been in the hospital. I wish I
had been left under the cart, I shouldn't be so hungry now.'

The gospodyni became thoughtful.

'If only one could be sure that you wouldn't die, you could stay here
as our farm-hand.'

The poor fellow jumped up from his seat and walked to the door,
dragging his foot.

'Why should I die?' he cried, 'I am quite well, and when I have a bit
to eat I can do the work of two. Give me barszcz[1] and I will chop up
a cartload of wood for you. Try me for a week, and I will plough all
those fields. I will serve you for old clothes and patched boots, so
long as I have a shelter for the winter.'

[Footnote 1: Pronunciation approximately: barsht. The national dish of
the peasants; it is made with beetroot and bread, tastes slightly sour,
and is said to be delicious.]

Here Maciek paused, astonished at himself for having said so much, for
he was silent by nature.

Slimakowa looked him up and down, gave him a bowl of barszcz and
another of potatoes, and told him to wash in the river. When her
husband came home in the evening Maciek was introduced to him as the
farm-hand who had already chopped wood and fed the cattle.

Slimak listened in silence. As he was tenderhearted he said, after a

'Well, stay with us, good man. It will be better for us and better for
you. And if ever - God grant that may not happen - there should be no
bread in the cottage at all, then you will be no worse off than you are
to-day. Rest, and you will set about your work all right.'

Thus it came about that this new inmate was received into the cottage.
He was quiet as a mouse, faithful as a dog, and industrious as a pair
of horses, in spite of his lameness.

After that, with the exception of the yellow dog Burek, no additions
were made to Slimak's household, neither children nor servants nor
property. Life at the gospodarstwo went with perfect regularity. All
the labour, anxiety, and hopes of these human beings centred in the one
aim: daily bread. For this the girl carried in the firewood, or,
singing and jumping, ran to the pit for potatoes. For this the
gospodyni milked the cows at daybreak, baked bread, and moved her
saucepans on and off the fire. For this Maciek, perspiring, dragged his
lame leg after the plough and harrow, and Slimak, murmuring his
morning-prayers, went at dawn to the manor-barn or drove into the town
to deliver the corn which he had sold to the Jews.

For the same reason they worried when there was not enough snow on the
rye in winter, or when they could not get enough fodder for the cattle;
or prayed for rain in May and for fine weather at the end of June. On
this account they would calculate after the harvest how much corn they
would get out of a korzec,[1] and what prices it would fetch. Like bees
round a hive their thoughts swarmed round the question of daily bread.
They never moved far from this subject, and to leave it aside
altogether was impossible. They even said with pride that, as gentlemen
were in the world to enjoy themselves and to order people about, so
peasants existed for the purpose of feeding themselves and others.

[Footnote 1: A _korzec_ is twelve hundred sheaves.]


It was April. After their dinner Slimak's household dispersed to their
different occupations. The gospodyni, tying a red handkerchief round
her head and a white linen one round her neck, ran down to the river.
Stasiek followed her, looking at the clouds and observing to himself
that they were different every day. Magda busied herself washing up the
dinner things, singing 'Oh, da, da', louder and louder in proportion as
the mistress went farther away. Jendrek began pushing Magda about,
pulling the dog's tail and whistling penetratingly; finally he ran out
with a spade into the orchard. Slimak sat by the stove. He was a man of
medium height with a broad chest and powerful shoulders. He had a calm
face, short moustache, and thick straight hair falling abundantly over
his forehead and on to his neck. A red-glass stud set in brass shone in
his sacking shirt. He rested the elbow of his left arm on his right
fist and smoked a pipe, but when his eyes closed and his head fell too
far forward, he righted himself and rested his right elbow on his left
fist. He puffed out the grey smoke and dozed alternately, spitting now
and then into the middle of the room or shifting his hands. When the
pipestem began to twitter like a young sparrow, he knocked the bowl a
few times against the bench, emptied the ashes, and poked his finger
down. Yawning, he got up and laid the pipe on the shelf.

He glanced under his brows at Magda and shrugged his shoulders. The
liveliness of the girl who skipped about while she was washing her
dishes, roused a contemptuous compassion in him. He knew well what it
felt like to have no desire for skipping about, and how great the
weight of a man's head, hands, and feet can be when he has been hard at

He put on his thick hobnailed boots and a stiff sukmana,[1] fastened a
hard strap round his waist, and put on his high sheepskin cap. The
heaviness in his limbs increased, and it came into his mind that it
would be more suitable to be buried in a bundle of straw after a huge
bowl of peeled barley-soup and another of cheese dumplings, than to go
to work. But he put this thought aside, and went out slowly into the
yard. In his snuff-coloured sukmana and black cap he looked like the
stem of a pine, burnt at the top.

[Footnote 1: _Sukmana_, a long linen coat, often elaborately

The barn door was open, and by sheer perversity some bundles of straw
were peeping out, luring Slimak to a doze. But he turned away his head
and looked at one of the hills where he had sown oats that morning. He
fancied the yellow grain in the furrows was looking frightened, as if
trying in vain to hide from the sparrows that were picking it up.

'You will eat me up altogether,' Slimak muttered. With heavy steps he
approached the shed, took out the two harrows, and led the chestnuts
out of the stable; one was yawning and the other moved his lips,
looking at Slimak and blinking his eyes, as if he thought: 'Would you
not prefer to doze and not to drag us up the hill? Didn't we do enough
work for you yesterday?' Slimak nodded, as if in answer, and drove off.

Seen from below, the thick-set man and the horses with heads hanging
down, seemed to harrow the blue sky, moving a few hundred paces
backward and forward. As often as they reached the edge of the sown
field, a flight of sparrows rose up, twittering angrily, and flew over
them like a cloud, then settled at the other end, shrieking continually
in astonishment that earth should be poured on to such lovely grain.

'Silly fool! Silly fool! What a silly fool!' they cried.

'Bah!' murmured Slimak, cracking his whip at them, 'if I listened to
you idlers, you and I would both starve under the fence. The beggars
are playing the deuce here!'

Certainly Slimak got little encouragement in his labour. Not only that
the sparrows noisily criticized his work, and the chestnuts scornfully
whisked their tails under his nose, but the harrows also objected, and
resisted at every little stone or clod of earth. The tired horses
continually stumbled, and when Slimak cried 'Woa, my lads!' and they
went on, the harrows again resisted and pulled them back. When the
worried harrows moved on for a bit, stones got into the horses' feet or
under his own shoes, or choked up, and even broke the teeth of the
harrows. Even the ungrateful earth offered resistance.

'You are worse than a pig!' the man said angrily. 'If I took to
scratching a pig's back with a horsecomb, it would lie down quietly and
grunt with gratitude. But you are always bristling, as if I did you an

The sun took up the affronted earth's cause, and threw a great sheaf of
light across the ashen-coloured field, where dark and yellow patches
were visible.

'Look at that black patch,' said the sun, 'the hill was all black like
that when your father sowed wheat on it. And now look at the yellow
patch where the stony ground comes out from under the mould and will
soon possess all your land.'

'But that is not my fault,' said Slimak.

'Not your fault?' whispered the earth; 'you yourself eat three times a
day, but how often do you feed me? It is much if it is once in eight
years. And then you think you give me a great deal, but a dog would
starve on such fare. You know that you always grudge me the manure,
shame on you!'

The penitent peasant hung his head.

'And you sleep twice in twenty-four hours unless your wife drives you
to work, but how much rest do you give me? Once in ten years, and then
your cattle trample upon me. So I am to be content with being harrowed?
Just try giving no hay or litter to your cows, only scratch them and
see whether they will give you milk. They will get ill, the slaughterer
will have to be sent for, and even the Jew will give you nothing for
their hides.'

'Oh dear, oh dear!' sighed the peasant, acknowledging that the earth
was right. But no one pitied or comforted him - on the contrary! The
west wind rose, and twining itself among the dry stalks on the
field-paths, whistled:

'Look sharp, you'll catch it! I will bring such a deluge of rain that
the remainder of the mould will be spurted on to the highroad or into
the manor-fields. And though you should harrow with your own teeth, you
shall get less and less comfort every year! I will make everything

The wind was not threatening in vain. In Slimak's father's time ten
korzy of sheaves an acre had been harvested here. Now he had to be
thankful for seven, and what was going to happen in the future?

'That's a peasant's lot,' murmured Slimak, 'work, work, work, and from
one difficulty you get into another. If only it could be otherwise, if
only I could manage to have another cow and perhaps get that little

His whip was pointed at the green field by the Bialka.

But the sparrows only twittered 'You fool!' and the earth groaned: 'You
are starving me!'

He stopped the horses and looked around him to divert his thoughts.

Jendrek was digging between the cottage and the highroad, throwing
stones at the birds now and then or singing out of tune:

'God grant you, God grant you
That I may not find you.
For else, my fair maid,
You should open your gate.'

And Magda answered from within:

'Although I am poor
And my mother was poor,
I'll not at the gate
Kiss you early or late.'

Slimak turned towards the river where his wife could be plainly seen in
her white chemise and red skirt, bending over the water and beating the
linen with a stick until the valley rang. Stasiek had already strayed
farther towards the ravines. Sometimes he knelt down on the bank and
gazed into the river, supported on his elbows. Slimak smiled.

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