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escaped to the ravines. When the Germans on horseback came up, Slimak
lit a torch and ran behind the barn. A pig's carcass lay in a puddle.

'That's our hog,' cried Fritz, 'they stole it from under our noses and
while there was a light in the house.'

'Daredevils!' muttered Maciek.

'To tell you the truth,' laughed Earner's farmhand, 'we thought it was
you who had done it.'

'Go to the devil!'

'Let's go after them,' Fritz interrupted quickly.

'Go on! I... steal your hog! indeed!'

'Let me go, father,' begged Jendrek.

'Go indoors! We've saved them a hog and the thieves will revenge
themselves on us; and here they come and accuse me of being a thief
myself.' Fritz Hamer swore at the farm-hand for his clumsiness and
tried to pacify the peasant, but he turned his back on him. Fritz had
lost his zeal for pursuing the thieves, took up his hog and disappeared
into the darkness.

After a few days the police-sergeant drove up, cross-examined every
one, explored the ravines, perspired, made himself muddy, and found no
one. He came to the very just conclusion that the thieves must have
escaped long ago. So he told Slimakowa to put some butter and a
speckled hen into his cart and returned home.

The thieving stopped for a while, and winter came on. The ground was
warmly covered as with a sheepskin; ice as hard as flint froze on the
Bialka, the Lord wrapped the branches of the trees securely in shirts
of snow. But Slimak was still meditating on hasps and bolts.

One evening, as he sat filling the room with smoke from his pipe,
shifting his feet and arriving at the second part of his meditations,
namely that 'What is done too soon is the devil's,' Jendrek excitedly
burst into the room. His mother was busy with the fire and paid no
attention to him, but his father noticed, although they were sparing of
light in the cottage, that his sukmana was torn and he looked bruised
and dishevelled. Looking at him out of the corner of his eyes, Slimak
emptied his pipe and said: 'Someone has been oxing your ears three
times over.'

'I gave him one better,' said the boy scowling.

As the mother had gone out and did not hear the conversation, the
father did not hurry himself; he cleaned his choked pipe, blew through
it and indifferently inquired, 'Who's been treating you this?'

'That scoundrel, Hermann.' The boy was hitching up his shoulders as if
he had been stung.

'And what were you doing at Earner's when you had been told not to go
there?'

'I was looking at the schoolmaster through the window,' said Jendrek
blushing, and added quickly, 'That German dog ran out from the kitchen
and shouted: "You are spying about here, you thief!" "What have I
stolen?" I say, and he: "Nothing yet, but you will steal some day; be
off, or I'll box your ears." "Try!" I say. "I've tried before," says
he; "take this!"'

'That was smart of the Swabian,' said Slimak, 'and did you do nothing
to him?'

'Why should I do nothing to him? I snatched up a log and hit him over
the head two or three times, but the coward started bleeding and gave
in; I should have liked to have given him more, but they came running
out of their houses and I made off.'

'So they didn't catch you?'

'Bah, how can they catch me, when I run like a hare?' 'Confound the
boy,' said his mother, who had come in, 'the Swabians will beat him
small.'

'He can always give them the slip,' said Slimak, lit his pipe, and
resumed his meditations on hasps and bolts.

But these were interrupted the next afternoon by a visit from the
Hamers; their cousin, Hermann, had his head so tightly bandaged that
hardly anything was visible of his face. They stood outside the gate
and shouted to Maciek to call his master. Slimak hastily fastened his
belt and stepped out. 'What do you want?' he said.

'We are going to the police-station to take out a summons against that
Jendrek of yours; look what he has done to Hermann; we have a
certificate from the surgeon that his injuries are serious.'

'He came ogling the schoolmaster's daughter, now he shall ogle his
prison bars,' Hermann added thickly behind his bandages.

Slimak was getting worried.

'You ought to be ashamed of yourselves,' he said, 'to take out a
summons for a bit of boy's nonsense; didn't Hermann box his ears too?
But we don't take out summonses for that sort of thing.'

'Oh, rather! I gave it him,' mumbled Hermann, 'but where's the blood?
where's the doctor's certificate?'

'You're a nice one,' said Slimak bitterly, 'there was no policeman to
certify that it was we who saved you the hog, but when a boy plays a
prank on you, you go to law.'

'Perhaps with you a hog means as much as a man,' sneered Fritz; 'with
us it is different.'

Slimak's meditations now turned from bolts and padlocks to prisons. He
talked the matter over with Maciek.

'When they put our small Jendrek in Court by the side of that big
Hermann, I reckon they won't do much to him.'

'They'll do nothing to him,' agreed the labourer.

'All the same, I should like to know what the punishment is for
thrashing a man.'

'They don't trouble their heads much about it. When Potocka beat her
neighbour over the head with a saucepan, they just fined her.'

'That's true, but I am afraid they think more of the Germans than of
our people.'

'How could they think more of unbelievers?'

'Look at the police-sergeant, he talks to Hamer as he wouldn't even
talk to Gryb.'

'That is so, but when he has looked round to see that no one is
listening, he tells you that a German is a mangy dog. You see, the
Germans have their Kaiser, but he's nothing like as great as our Czar;
I have it from a soldier who was in the hospital, and he used to say:
"Bah, he's nothing compared to ours!"'

This greatly reassured Slimak, and he went to church with his wife and
son the next Sunday to find out what others, familiar with the ways of
the law, thought of the matter. Maciek remained at home to look after
the dinner and the baby.

It was past noon when Burek began to bark furiously. Maciek looked out
and saw a man dressed like the townspeople standing at the gate; he had
pulled his cap well over his face. The farm-labourer went outside.

'What's up?'

'Take pity on us, gospodarz,' said the stranger, 'our sledge has broken
down close by, and I can't mend it, because they have stolen the
hatchet out of my basket last night.'

Maciek looked doubtful. 'Have you come far?'

'Twenty-five miles; my wife and I are driving twelve miles further. I
will give you good vodka and sausages if you will help us.'

Maciek's suspicions lessened when vodka was mentioned. He shook his
head and crossed himself, but ultimately decided that one must help
one's neighbour, fetched the hatchet and went out with the stranger.

He found a one-horse sledge standing near the farm. A woman, even more
smartly dressed than the man, sat huddled up in a corner; she blessed
Maciek in a tearful voice, but her husband did more, he poured out a
large tumblerful of vodka and offered it to the labourer, drinking to
his health first. Maciek apologized, as the ceremony demanded, then
took a long pull, till the tears came into his eyes. He set about
mending the sledge, and although it was a small job and did not take
him more than half an hour, the strangers thanked him extravagantly,
the woman gave him half a sausage and some roast pork, and the man
exclaimed: 'I have travelled far and wide, but I have never found a
more obliging peasant than you are, brother. I should like to leave you
a remembrance. Have you got a bottle?'

'I think I could find one,' said Maciek, in a voice trembling with
delight. The man unceremoniously pushed his wife on one side and drew a
large bottle from underneath the seat.

'We are off now,' he said, 'we will go to the gospodarstwo and you
shall give me some nails in case of another breakdown, and I will leave
you some of this cordial in return. Mind, if your head or your stomach
aches or you are worried and can't sleep, take a glassful of this: all
your worries will at once disappear. Take good care of it and don't on
any account give a drop away, it's a speciality; my grandfather got it
from the monks at Radecznica, it's as good as holy water.'

Maciek went into the house, the stranger remained in the yard, looking
carelessly round the buildings, while Burek barked madly at him. At any
other time the dog's anger would have roused Maciek's suspicion, but
how could one think anything but well of a guest who had already given
vodka and sausages and who was offering more drink? He smilingly
offered a big-bellied bottle to the traveller, who poured half a pint
of the cordial into it, and when he took leave he repeated the warning
that it should be used only in case of need.

Maciek stuffed a piece of rag into the neck of the bottle and hid it in
the stable. He felt a strong desire to taste the drink, if only a drop,
but he resisted.

'Supposing I were to get ill... better keep it.'

He rocked the baby to sleep and then woke her up again to tell her
about the hospital and his broken leg, about the travellers who had
left him such a magnificent present, but nothing could take his
thoughts away from the monks' cordial. The big-bellied bottle seemed to
hover over the pots and pans on the stove, it blossomed out of the
wall, it almost tapped at the window, but Maciek blinked his eyes and
thought: 'Leave me alone, you will come in useful some day!'

Shortly before sunset he heard cheerful singing in the road, and.
quickly stepping outside, he saw the gospodarz and his family returning
from church. They were silhouetted against the red sky in the white
landscape. Jendrek, his head in the air and his arms crossed behind his
back, was walking on the left side of the road, the gospodyni in her
blue Sunday skirt, and her jacket unbuttoned, so that her white chemise
and bare chest were showing, on the right. The gospodarz, his cap awry,
and holding up nis sukmana as for a dance, lurched from right to left
and from left to right, singing. The labourer laughed, not because they
were drunk, but because it pleased him to see them enjoying themselves.

'Do you know, Maciek,' cried Slimak from afar, 'do you know the
Swabians can't hurt us!'

He ran up full tilt and supported himself on Maciek's neck.

'Do you know,' cried the gospodyni, coming up,'we have seen Jasiek Gryb
who knows all about the law; we told him about Jendrek's giving it to
Hermann, and he swore by a happy death that the Court would let Jendrek
off; Jasiek has been tried for these tricks himself, he knows.'

'Let them try and put me in prison!' shouted Jendrek.

It was in this frame of mind that they sat down, but somehow the dinner
was not a success. Slimakowa poured most of the sauerkraut over the
table, the gospodarz had no appetite, and Jendrek had forgotten how to
hold a spoon, scalded his father's foot with soup and finally fell
asleep. His parents followed his example, so Maciek was left to himself
again. The big-bellied bottle started pursuing him immediately. It
availed nothing that he busied himself with the fire and the wick of
the flickering lamp. The snoring around him disposed him to sleep and
the smell of vodka that had been introduced into the room filled him
with longing. In vain he tried to keep off the thoughts that circled
like moths round the light. When he forgot his misery at the hospital,
he thought of the forlornness of the abandoned baby, and when he put
that aside his own needs overwhelmed him again. 'It's no use,' he
muttered, 'I must go to bed.'

He wrapped the child in the sheepskin and went into the stable. He lay
down on the straw, the warmth of the horses tempered the cold, and
Maciek closed his eyes, but sleep would not come; it was too early yet.

As he turned from side to side, his hand came in contact with the
bottle; he pushed it away; but, violating the law of inertia, it thrust
itself irresistibly into his hand; the rag remained between his
fingers, and when he mechanically lifted it to his eyes in the half-
light, the strange vessel leapt to his lips of its own accord. Before
he was conscious of what he was doing, Maciek had pulled a long draft
of the health-giving speciality. He gulped it down and pulled a wry
face. The drink was not only strong, it was nauseous; it simply tasted
like ordinary medicine. 'Well, that wasn't worth longing for!' he
thought, as he stuffed up the neck of the bottle again. He resolved to
be more temperate in future with a liquor which was not distinguished
for a good taste.

Maciek said a prayer and felt warm and calm. He remembered the
home-coming of the gospodarz's family: they all stood before his eyes
as if they were alive. Suddenly Slimak and Jendrek vanished and only
Slimakowa remained near him in her unbuttoned jacket which exposed rows
of corals and her bare white chest. He closed his eyelids and pressed
them with his fingers, so as not to look, but still he saw her, smiling
at him in a strange way. He hid his head in the sheepskin - it was in
vain; the woman stood there and smiled in a way that sent the fever
through his veins. His heart beat violently; he turned his head to the
wall and, terror-stricken, heard her voice whispering close to him:
'Move up!'

'Where am I to move to?' groaned Maciek.

A warm hand seemed to embrace his neck.

Then his mattress began to ascend with him, he flew... flew. God I was
he falling or being lifted into the air? he felt as light as a feather,
as smoke. He opened his eyes for a moment and saw stars glittering in a
dark sky over a snowy landscape. How could he be seeing the sky?
No... he must have made a mistake; darkness was surrounding him again.
He wanted to move, but could not; besides, why should he move, when he
felt so extraordinarily comfortable? there was not a thing in the world
that it would be worth while moving a finger for, nothing but sleep
mattered, sleep without awakening. He sighed heavily and slept and
slept.

A sensation of pain woke Maciek from a dreamless sleep which must have
lasted about ten hours. He felt himself violently shaken, kicked in the
ribs and on the head, tugged by his arms and legs.

'Get up, you thief... get up!' a voice was shouting at him.

He tried to get up, but turned over on the other side instead. The
blows and tugs recommenced, and the voice, choked with rage, continued:

'Get up! I wish the holy earth had never carried you!'

At last Maciek roused himself and sat up; the light hurt his eyes, his
head felt heavy like a rock; so he closed his eyes again, supported his
head and tried to think; immediately he received a blow in the face
from a fist. When at last he opened his eyes, he saw that it was Slimak
who was standing over him, mad with rage.

'What are you hitting me for?' he asked in amazement.

'Where are the horses, you thief?' shouted Slimak.

'Horses? what horses?'

He was suddenly seized with sickness. Coming to himself a little, he
looked round. Yes, something seemed to be missing from the stable; he
wiped his forehead, looked again... the stable was empty.

'But where are the horses?' he asked.

'Where?' cried Slimak, 'where your brothers have taken them, you
thief.' The labourer held out his hands.

'I never took them out. I haven't stirred from here all night,
something must have happened... I am ill.'

He staggered up and had to support himself.

'What is that? You are trying to make out that you have lost your wits.
You know quite well that the horses have been stolen. Whoever stole
them must have opened the door and led them over you.'

'God help me! no one opened the door, no one led them over me,' cried
Maciek, bursting into sobs.

'Dad! Burek is lying dead behind the fence,' cried Jendrek, who came
running up with his mother.

'They have poisoned him,' said the woman, 'the foam has frozen on his
mouth.'

Maciek sank down in the open door, unable to stand any longer.

'The devil has got him too, he isn't like himself, something has fallen
on him,' said Slimak.

'And may he keep it till he dies,'cried the woman, 'here he is sleeping
in the stable and lets the horses be stolen. May the ground spit him
out!'

Jendrek was looking for a stone, but his parents, taking notice of the
man's deathly pallor and his sunken eyes for the first time, restrained
him.

'Maybe they have poisoned him too,' whispered Slimakowa.

Slimak shrugged his shoulders, not knowing what to make of it.

He began to question Maciek: Had anything happened in his absence?

Slowly and with difficulty, but concealing nothing, Maciek told his
story.

'Of course they gave me some filthy stuff, and then they made off with
the horses,' he added, sobbing.

But instead of taking pity on him, Slimak burst out afresh:

'What? you took drink from strangers and never told me anything about
it?'

'Why should I have bothered you, gospodarz, when you were a little bit
screwed yourself?'

'What's that to do with you?' bawled Slimak, 'dogs have no right to
notice whether one is drunk or not, they have to be all the more
watchful when one is! You are a thief like the others, only you are
worse. I took you in when you were starving, and you've robbed me in
return.'

'Don't talk like that,' groaned Maciek, crawling to Slimak's feet, 'I
have saved a few roubles from my wages, and there is my little chest
and a bit of sheepskin and my sukmana; take it all, but don't say I
robbed you. Your dog has not been more faithful, and they have poisoned
him too.'

'Don't bother me,' cried Slimak, thrusting him aside, 'the fellow
offers me his wages and his box when the horses were worth twenty-eight
roubles.

I haven't taken twenty-eight roubles the whole year. If you were my own
son I wouldn't let you off; neither of the boys have ever cost me as
much.'

His anger overcame him, he beat himself with his clenched fists.

'Find the horses,' he cried, 'or I will give you in charge, go where
you like, look where you like, but don't show your face here without
them or one of us will die! I loathe you. Take that bastard or we will
let it starve, and be off!'

'I will find the horses,' said Maciek, and drew his old sheepskin round
him with trembling hands; 'perhaps God will help me.'

'The devil will help you, you low scoundrel,' said Slimak, and turned
away.

'And leave your box,' added Jendrek.

'He has paid us out for our kindness,' whimpered Slimakowa, wiping her
eyes. They went into the house.

Not one of them had a kind glance to spare for Maciek, although he was
leaving them forever.

Slowly and painfully he wrapped the child up in an old bit of a shirt
and a shawl, fastened his belt round himself and looked for a stick.

His head was aching as if he were going through a severe illness; he
was unable to reason out the situation. He felt no resentment towards
Slimak for having beaten him and driven him away; the gospodarz was in
the right, of course; neither was he afraid of having no roof over his
head; people like him never had any roof of their own; he was not
thinking of the future. Another thought was torturing him...the horses.
For Slimak the horses were part of his working machinery, for Maciek
they were friends and brothers. Who but they in the whole world had
longed for him, had greeted him heartily when he returned, or looked
after him when he went out? No one but Wojtek and Kasztan. For years
they had shared hardships together. Now they were gone, perhaps led
away into misery, through his, Maciek's, fault.

He fancied he heard them neighing. They were becoming sensible of what
was happening to them and were calling to him for help!

'I am coming, I am coming,' he muttered, took the child on his arm,
seized the stick and limped forth. He did not look round, he would see
the gospodarstwo again when he came back with the horses.

He saw Burek lying stark behind the barn, but he had no thought to
spare for him; he peered for the traces of the horses' feet. There they
were, stamped into the snow as into wax; Kasztan's large feet and the
broken hoof of Wojtek; here the thieves had mounted and ridden off at a
slow trot. How bold, how sure of themselves they had been! But Maciek
will find you! The peasant rancour in him had been awakened. If you
escape to the end of the world he will pursue you; if you dig
yourselves into the ground he will dig you out with his hands; if you
escape to Heaven he will stand at the gate and importune the saints
until they fly all over the universe and give him back the horses!

On the highroad the tracks became less distinct, but they were still
recognizable. Maciek could read the whole history of the peregrination
in them. Here Kasztan had been startled and had shied; here the thief
had dismounted and altered Wojtek's bridle. What gentlemen they were,
these thieves, they came stealing in new boots, such as no gentleman
need have been ashamed of!

Near the church the tracks became confused and, what was worse,
divided. Kasztan had been ridden to the right and Wojtek to the left.
After reflecting for a moment, Maciek followed the latter track,
possibly because it was clearer, but most likely because he loved that
little horse the best. About noon he found himself near the village
where Magda's uncle, the Soltys Grochowski, lived. He turned in there,
hoping for a bite of food; he was hungry and the little girl was
crying.

Grochowski was at home and in the middle of receiving a sound rating
from his wife for no particular reason but just for the pleasure of it.
The huge man was sitting on the bench by the wall, with one arm on the
table and the other on the window-sill, listening with an expression of
fixed attention to his wife's homilies; this attention was, however,
assumed, for whenever she buried her head among the pots and pans on
the stove he yawned and stretched himself, pulling a face as if the
conversation had long been distasteful to him.

As his wife was in the habit of relenting before strangers, so as not
to prejudice his office, Grochowski hailed Maciek's arrival gladly, and
ordered food for him and milk for the little girl, adding cold meat and
vodka to the repast when he heard the news that Slimak's horses had
been stolen and that Maciek was applying to him for advice. He even
talked of drawing up a statement, but the necessary implements were not
at hand. So he drew Maciek into the alcove for a long, whispered
conversation, the upshot of which was that they must proceed with
caution upon the track of the thieves, as certain strong influences
tied Grochowski's hands until he had clearer evidence. Maciek was also
given to understand why Jasiek Gryb had entertained the gospodarz and
his family so liberally, and Grochowski even seemed to know the man who
had presented Maciek with the monks' cordial and said that the woman in
the sledge was not a woman at all.

'I will do whatever you tell me, Soltys,' said Maciek, embracing his
knees, 'even if you should send me to my death.'

'It is no use tracking near here,' said the Soltys, 'we know all about
that, but it would be useful to know where the other track leads to.
Follow that as far as you can, and if you find any clue let me know at
once. You ought to be back here by to-morrow.'

'And shall we find the horses?'

'We shall find them even if we had to drag them out of the thieves'
bowels,' said the Soltys, looking fierce.

It was about two o'clock when Maciek was ready to start. The Soltys
hinted that the child had better be left behind, but his wife was so
angry at the suggestion that he desisted. So Maciek tied her up again
in the old bits of clothing and went his way.

He easily found Kasztan's tracks on the highroad and followed them for
an hour, when he thought that he must be nearing the thieves' quarters,
for the tracks had been covered up, and finally led into the ravines.
The frost was pinching harder and harder, but the breathless man
scarcely noticed the cold. From time to time clouds flew over the sky
and snow drifted along the ground in gusts; Maciek searched all the
more eagerly, so as not to miss the track before it should be covered
with fresh drifts. On and on he walked, never even noticing that
darkness was coming on and the snow was falling faster.

Now and then he would sit down for a moment, too tired to go on, but he
jumped up again, for he fancied he heard Kasztan neighing. Probably it
was his aching head that produced these sounds, but at last they became
so loud that he left the track and cut right across the hill in the
direction from which they seemed to proceed. With his last remaining


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Online LibraryVariousSelected Polish Tales → online text (page 11 of 22)