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strength he struggled with the bushes, fell, scrambled to his feet, and
continued. Then the neighing ceased and he found that he was in the
ravines, knee-deep in snow, and night-was falling.

With difficulty he dragged himself on to a knoll to see where he was.
He could see nothing but snow - snow to the right and to the left, here
and there intercepted by bushes, the last streak of light had faded
from the sky.

He tried to descend; in one place the slope was too steep, in another
there were too many bushes; at last he decided on an easier place and
put his stick forward; it gave way, and he fell after it for several
yards. It was fortunate that the snow lay waist-deep in this spot.

The frightened child began its low sobbing, it had always been too weak
to cry heartily. Fear was knocking at Maciek's heart.

'Surely, I can't have lost my way?' he thought, 'these are our ravines
that I know so well, yet I don't see my way out of them.'

He started walking again, alternately in low and deep snow, until he
came upon a place that had been trodden down recently. He knelt down
and felt the tracks with his hands. They were his own footprints.

'Dear me! I've been going round in a circle,' he muttered, and tried
another corridor of ravines which presently led him to the place where
he had slid down the hill. He fancied he heard murmurings overhead and
looked up, but it was only the rustling of the bushes. The wind had
sprung up on the hillside and was driving before it clouds of fine snow
which stung his face and hands like gnats.

'Can it be that my hour has come?' he thought; 'No, no,' he whispered,
'not till I have found the horses, else they will take me for a thief.'
He wrapped the child more closely in the coverings; she had fallen
asleep in spite of shaking and discomfort; he walked about aimlessly,
so as to keep moving.

'I won't be a fool and sit down,' he muttered, 'if I sit down I shall
be frozen, and the thieves will keep the horses.'

The hard snow fell faster and faster, whitening Maciek from head to
foot; the wind swept along the top of the hills, and as he listened to
it, the man was glad that he had not been caught in the open.

'It's quite warm here,' he said, 'but all the same I'm not going to sit
down, I must keep on walking till the morning.'

But it was not yet midnight and Maciek's legs began to refuse
obedience, he could no longer push away the snow with his feet; he
stopped and stamped, but that was even more tiring; he leant against
the sides of the little cavity. The spot was excellent; it was raised
above the ravine, and the little hollow was just large enough to hold a
man; bushes sheltered it against the snow on all sides. But the
crowning advantage was a jutting piece of rock, about the size of a

'No, I won't sit down,' he determined, 'I know I should get
frozen.... It's true,' he added after a while, 'it would not do to go
to sleep, but it can't hurt to sit down for a bit.'

He boldly sat down, drew his cap over his ears and the clothes round
the sleeping child, and decided that he would alternately rest and
stamp, and so await the morning.

'So long as I don't go to sleep,' he kept on reminding himself. He
fancied the air was getting a little warmer and his feet were thawing.
Instead of the cold he felt ants creeping under the soles of his feet.
They crept in among his toes, swarmed over his injured leg, then over
the other, and reached his knees. In a mysterious way one had suddenly
settled on his nose; he wanted to flick it off, but a whole swarm was
sitting on his arms. He decided not to drive them away, for in the
first place they were keeping him awake, and then he rather liked them.
He smiled, as one reached his waist, and did not ask how they came to
be there. It was not surprising that there should be ant-hills in the
ravines, and he forgot that it was winter.

'So long as I don't go to long as I don't go to sleep....'
But at last he asked himself 'Why am I not to go to sleep? It's night
and I am in the stable? The thieves might be coming, that's it!'

He grasped his stick more firmly; whispers seemed to be stirring all

'Oho! they are opening the stable door, there is the snow, this time I
will give it to them....'

The thieves must have found out that he was on the watch this time and
made off. Maciek laughed; now he could go to sleep. He straightened his
back, pressed the little girl close.

'Just a moment's sleep,' he reminded himself, 'I've something to do,
but what is it? Ploughing? no, that's done. Water the horses.. the

After midnight the moon dispersed the clouds and the new moon peeped
out and looked straight into the sleeper's face: but the man did not
move. Fresh clouds came up and hid the moon, yet he did not move. He
sat in the hollow of the hill, his head leaning against its side, the
child clasped to his breast.

At last the sun rose, but even then he did not move. He seemed to be
gazing in astonishment at the railway line, not more than twenty steps
away from his resting place.

The sun was high when a signalman came along the permanent way. He
caught sight of the sleeper and shouted, but there was no answer, and
the man approached.

'Heh, father! have you been drinking?' he called out, as he went round
the hollow at a distance. At last, hardly believing his eyes, he went
up to the silent sitter and touched his hand.

Maciek's and the child's faces were hard, as if they had been cast in
wax, hoarfrost lay on his lashes, and frozen moisture stood on the
child's lips. The signalman's arms dropped in astonishment; he wanted
to call for help, but remembered that no one would hear him. He turned
and ran at full speed to the Soltys' office.

In the course of an hour or two a sledge with some men arrived to
remove the bodies. But Maciek's was frozen so hard that it was
impossible to open his arms or straighten his legs, so they put him in
the sledge as he was. He went for his last drive with the child on his
knees, his head resting against the rail, and his face turned upwards,
as though he had done with human reckoning and was recounting his
wrongs to his Creator.

When the mournful procession stopped, a small crowd of peasants, women,
and Jews gathered in front of the Wojt's office. The Wojt, his clerk,
and Grochowski were standing together. A shudder of remorse seized the
latter, he guessed who the man and child were that had been found,
frozen to death. He explained to the crowd what Maciek had told him.

When he had finished, the men turned away, the women groaned, the Jews
spat on the ground; only Jasiek, the son of the rich peasant Gryb,
lighted an expensive cigar and smiled. He put his hands in the pockets
of his sheepskin coat, stuck out first one foot, then the other, to
display his elegant top-boots that reached above his knees, sucked his
cigar, and continued to smile. The men looked at him with aversion, but
the women, although shocked, did not think him repulsive. Was he not a
tall, broadshouldered, graceful lad, with a complexion like milk and
blood, and eyes the colour of a bluebottle, and did he not trim his
moustaches and beard like a nobleman? It was a pity he was not a
foreman with plenty of opportunities of ordering the girls about! The
men, however, were whispering among themselves that he was a scoundrel
who would come to a bad end.

'Certainly it was wrong of Slimak to send the poor wretch away in such
weather,' said the Wojt.

'It was a shame,' murmured the women.

'It's only natural he should be angry when his horses had been stolen,'
said one of the men.

'Driving him away did not bring the horses back, and he will have the
two poor souls on his conscience till he dies,' cried an old woman.

Grochowski was seized with shuddering again.

'It was not so much that Slimak drove him away, but that he himself was
anxious to go,' he said quickly, 'he wanted to track the thieves;' here
he gave a quick glance at Jasiek, who returned it insolently, and
observed that horse-thieves were sharp, and more people might meet
their death in tracking them.

'They may find that there is a limit to it,' said Grochowski.

The policeman now proceeded to examine the corpses, and the Wojt was
standing by with a wry face, as if he had bitten on a peppercorn.

'We must drive them to the district police-court,' he said; 'Stojka,'
turning to the owner of the sledge, 'drive on, we will overtake you
presently. This is the first time that any one in this parish has ever
been frozen to death.'

Stojka demurred and scratched his head, but he took up the reins and
lashed the horses; after all, it was only a few versts, and one need
not look much at the passengers. He walked by the side of the sledge
and Grochowski and a man who was to make closer acquaintance with the
police-court, for spoiling his neighbour's bucket, went with him.

It so happened that, just as the Wojt was dispatching the bodies to the
police-court, the police officer was sending 'Silly Zoska' back to her
native village. A few months after leaving her child in Maciek's care
she had been arrested; the reason was unknown to her. As a matter of
fact she had been accused of begging, vagrancy, and attempted arson.
After the discovery of each new crime, they had taken her from police-
station to prison, from prison to infirmary, from infirmary to another
prison, and so on for a whole year.

During her peregrinations Zoska had behaved with complete indifference;
when she was taken to a new place she would worry at first whether she
would find work. After that she became apathetic and slept the greater
part of the time, on her plank bed, or waiting in corridors and
prison-yards. It was all the same to her. At times she began to long for
freedom and her child, and then she fell into accesses of fury. Now
they were sending her back under escort of two peasants; one carried
the papers relating to her case, and the other had come to keep him
company. She had a boot on one foot and a sandal on the other, a
sukmana in holes, and a handkerchief like a sieve on her head. She
walked quickly in front of the men, as if she were in a hurry to get
back, yet neither the familiar neighbourhood nor the hard frost seemed
to make any impression on her. When the men called out: 'Heh! not so
fast!' she stood as still as a post, and waited till they told her to
go on.

'She's quite daft!' said one.

'She's always been like that,' said the other, who had known her a long
time, 'yet she's not bad at rough work.'

A few versts from the village, where the chimneys peeped out from
beyond the snowy hills, they came upon the little cortège. The
attendants, noticing something unusual in the look of it, stopped and
talked to the Soltys.

'Look, Zoska,' said the latter to the woman who was standing by
indifferently, 'that is your little girl.'

She approached without seeming to understand; slowly, however, her face
acquired a human expression.

'What's fallen upon them?'

'They have been frozen.'

'Why have they been frozen?'

'Slimak drove them out of the house.'

'Slimak drove them out of the house?' she repeated, fingering the
bodies, 'yes, that's my little girl, she's grown a bit; whoever heard
of a child being frozen to death?... she was meant to come to a bad
end. As God loves me, yes, that's my girl, my little girl - they've
murdered her; look at her!' she suddenly became animated.

'Drive on,' said the Soltys, 'we must be getting on.'

The horses started, Zoska tried to get into the sledge.

'What are you doing?' cried her attendants, pulling her back.

'That's my little girl!' cried Zoska, holding on.

'What if she is yours?' said the Soltys, 'there's one road for you and
another for her.'

'She's my little girl, mine!' With both hands the woman held on to the
sledge, but the peasant whipped up the horses and she fell to the
ground; she grasped the runners and was dragged along for several

'Don't behave like a lunatic,' cried the men, detaching her with
difficulty from the fast-moving sledge; she would have run after it,
but one of them knelt on her feet and the other held her by the

'She's my little girl; Slimak has let her freeze to death.... God
punish him, may he freeze to death himself!' she screamed.

Gradually, as the sledge moved away, she calmed down, her livid face
assumed its copper colour, and her eyes became dull. She fell back into
her old apathy.

'She's forgotten all about it,' said one of her companions.

'These lunatics are often happier than other people,' answered the
friend. Then they walked on in silence. Nothing was heard but the
creaking snow under their feet.


The loss of his horses had almost driven Slimak crazy. Beating Maciek
and kicking him out had not exhausted his anger. He felt the room
oppressive, walked out into the yard and ran up and down with clenched
fists and bloodshot eyes, waiting for a chance to vent his temper.

He remembered that he ought to feed the cows and went into the stable,
where he pushed the animals about, and when one clumsily trod on his
foot, he seized a fork and beat her mercilessly. He kicked Burek's body
behind the barn. 'You damned dog, if you had not taken bread from
strangers, I should still have my horses!'

He returned to the room and threw himself on the bench with such
violence that he upset the block for wood-chopping. Jendrek laughed,
but his father unbuckled his belt and did not stop beating him till the
boy crept, bleeding, under the bench. With the belt in his hand Slimak
waited for his wife to make a remark. But she remained silent, only
holding on to the chimney-piece for support.

'What makes you stagger? Haven't you got over yesterday's vodka?'

'Something's wrong with me,' she answered low.

He decided to strap on his belt. 'What's wrong?'

'I can't see, and there's a noise in my ears. Is any one whistling?'

'Don't drink vodka and you'll hear no noises,' he said, spitting, and
went out. It surprised him that she had made no remark after the
thrashing he had given Jendrek, and having no one to beat, he seized an
axe and chopped wood until nightfall, eating nothing all day. Logs and
splinters fell round him, he felt as if he were revenging himself on
his enemies, and when he left off, stiff and tired, his shirt soaked
with perspiration, his anger had gone from him.

He was surprised to find no one in the room and peeped into the alcove;
Slimakowa was lying on the bed.

'What's the matter'

'I'm not well, but it's nothing.'

'The fire has gone out.'

'Out?' she asked vaguely, raising herself. She got up and lighted the
fire with difficulty, her husband watching her.

'You see,' he said presently, 'you got hot yesterday and then you would
drink water out of the Jew's pewter pot and unbutton your jacket. You
have caught cold.'

'It's nothing,' she said ill-humouredly, pulled herself together and
warmed up the supper. Jendrek crept out and took a spoon, but cried
instead of eating.

During the night, at about the hour when the unhappy Maciek was drawing
his last breath in the ravines, Slimakowa was seized with violent fits
of shivering. Slimak covered her with his sheepskin and it passed off.
She got up in the morning, and although she complained of pains, she
went about her work. Slimak was depressed.

Towards evening a sledge stopped at the gate and the innkeeper Josel
entered with a strange expression on his face. Slimak's conscience
pricked him.

'The Lord be praised,' said Josel.

'In Eternity.'

A silence ensued.

'You have nothing to ask?' said the Jew.

'What should I have to ask?' Slimak looked into his eyes and
involuntarily grew pale.

'To-morrow,' Josel said slowly, 'to-morrow Jendrek's trial is coming on
for violence to Hermann.'

'They'll do nothing to him.'

'I expect he will have to sit in jail for a bit.'

'Then let him sit, it will cure him of fighting.'

Again silence fell. The Jew shook his head; Slimak's alarm grew.

He screwed up his courage at last and asked: 'What else?'

'What's the use of making many words?' said the Jew, holding up his
hands, 'Maciek and the child have been frozen to death.'

Slimak sprang to his feet and looked for something to throw at the Jew,
but staggered and held on to the wall. A hot wave rushed over him, his
legs shook. Then he wondered why he should have been seized with fear
like this.


'In the ravines close to the railway line.'

'But when?'

'You know quite well that it was yesterday when you drove them out.'
Slimak's anger was rising.

'As I live! the Jew is a liar! Frozen to death? What did he go to the
ravines for? are there no cottages in the world?'

The innkeeper shrugged his shoulders and got up.

'You can believe it or not, it's all the same to me, but I myself saw
them being driven to the police-station.'

'Ah well! What harm can they do to me, because Maciek has been frozen?'

'Perhaps men can't do you harm, but, man, before God! or don't you
believe in God?' the Jew asked from the other side of the door, his
burning eyes fixed on Slimak.

The peasant stood still and listened to his heavy tread down to the
gate and to the sound of his departing sledge. He shook himself, turned
round and met Jendrek's eyes looking fixedly at him from the far

'Why should I be to blame?' he muttered. Suddenly an annual sermon,
preached by an old priest, flashed through his mind; he seemed to hear
the peculiar cadence of his voice as he said: 'I was an hungered and ye
gave me no meat.... I was a stranger and ye took me not in.'

'By God, the Jew is lying,' he exclaimed. These words seemed to break
the spell; he felt sure Maciek and the child were alive, and he almost
went out to call them in to supper.

'A low Jew, that Josel,' he said to his wife, while he covered her
again with the sheepskin, when her shivering-fits returned. Nothing
should induce him to believe that story.

Next day the village Soltys drove up with the summons for Jendrek.

'His trial does not come on till to-morrow,' he said, 'but as I was
driving that way, I thought he might as well come with me.'

Jendrek grew pale and silently put on his new sukmana and sheepskin.

'What will they do to him?' his father asked peevishly.

'Eh! I dare say he'll get a few days, perhaps a week.'

Slimak slowly pulled a rouble out of a little packet.

'And...Soltys, have you heard what the accursed Jew has been saying
about Maciek and the child being frozen to death?'

'How shouldn't I have heard?' said the Soltys, reluctantly; 'it's


'Yes, of course. But,' he added, 'every one understands that it's not
your fault. He didn't look after the horses and you discharged him. No
one told him to go down into the ravines.

He must have been drunk. The poor wretch died through his own

Jendrek was ready to start, and embraced his parents' knees. Slimak
gave him the rouble, tears came into his eyes; his mother, however,
showed no sign of interest.

'Jagna,' Slimak said with concern, 'Jendrek is going to his trial.'

'What of that?' she answered with a delirious look.

'Are you very ill?'

'No, I'm only weak.'

She went into the alcove and Slimak remained alone. The longer he sat
pondering the lower his head dropped on to his chest. Half dozing, he
fancied he was sitting on a wide, grey plain, no bushes, no grass, not
even stones were to be seen; there was nothing in front of him; but at
his side there was something he dared not look at. It was Maciek with
the child looking steadily at him.

No, he would not look, he need not look! He need see nothing of him,
except a little bit of his sukmana...perhaps not even that!

The thought of Maciek was becoming an obsession. He got up and began to
busy himself with the dishes.

'What am I coming to? It doesn't do to give way!'

He pulled himself together, fed the cattle, ran to the river for water.
It was so long since he had done these things that he felt rejuvenated,
and but for the thought of Maciek he would have been almost cheerful.

His gloom returned with the dusk. It was the silence that tormented him
most. Nothing stirred but the mice behind the boards. The voice was
haunting him again: 'I was a stranger and ye took me not in.'

'It's all the fault of those scoundrel Swabians that everything is
going wrong with me,' he muttered, and began to count his losses on the
window-pane: 'Stasiek, that's one, the cow two, the horses four,
because the thieves did that out of spite for the hog, Burek five,
Jendrek six, Maciek and the child eight, and Magda had to leave, and my
wife is ill with worry, that makes ten. Lord Christ...!'

Trembling seized him and he gripped his hair; he had never in his life
felt fear like this, though he had looked death in the face more than
once. He had suddenly caught a glimpse of the power the Germans were
exercising, and it scared him. They had destroyed all his life's work,
and yet you could not bring it home to them. They had lived like
others, ploughed, prayed, taught their children; you could not say they
were doing any wrong, and yet they had made his home desolate simply by
being there. They had blasted what was near them as smoke from a kiln
withers all green things.

Not until this moment had the thought ever come to him: 'I am too close
to them! The gospodarstwos farther off do not suffer like this. What
good is the land, if the people on it die?'

This new aspect was so horrible to him that he felt he must escape from
it; he glanced at his wife, she was asleep. The cadence of the priest's
voice began to haunt him again.

Steps were approaching through the yard. The peasant straightened
himself. Could it be Jendrek? The door creaked. No, it was a strange
hand that groped along the wall in the darkness. He drew back, and his
head swam when the door opened and Zoska stood on the threshold.

For a moment both stood silent, then Zoska said:

'Be praised.'

She began rubbing her hands over the fire.

The idea of Maciek and the child and Zoska had become confused in
Slimak's mind; he looked at her as if she were an apparition from the
other world. 'Where do you come from?' His voice was choked.

'They sent me back to the parish and told me to look out for work. They
said they wouldn't keep loafers.'

Seeing the food in the saucepan, she began to lick her lips like a dog.

'Pour out a basin of soup for yourself.'

She did as she was told.

'Don't you want a servant?' she asked presently.

'I don't know; my wife is ill.'

'There you are! It's quiet here. Where's Magda?'



'Sent up for trial.'

'There you are! Stasiek?'

'Drowned last summer,' he whispered, fearful lest Maciek's and the
little girl's turn should come next.

But she ate greedily like a wild animal, and asked nothing further.

'Does she know?' he thought.

Zoska had finished and struck her hand cheerfully on her knee. He took

'Can I stop the night?'

Uneasiness seized him; any other guest would have been a blessing in
his solitude, but Zoska.... If she did not know the truth, what ill
wind had blown her here? And if she knew?...'

He reflected. In the intense silence suddenly the priest's voice
started again: 'I was a stranger and ye took me not in.'

'All right, stop here, but you must sleep in this room.'

'Or in the barn?'

'No, here.'

He hardly knew what it was that he feared; there was a vague sense of
misfortune in the air which was tormenting him.

The fire died down. Zoska lay down on the bench in her rags and Slimak
went into the alcove. He sat on the bed, determined to be on the watch.
He did not know that this strange state of mind is called 'nerves'. Yet
a kind of relief had come in with Zoska; she had driven away the
spectre of Maciek and the child. But an iron ring was beginning to
press on his head. This was sleep, heavy sleep, the companion of great
anguish. He dreamt that he was split in two; one part of him was
sitting by his sick wife, the other was Maciek, standing outside the
window, where sunflowers bloomed in the summer. This new Maciek was
unlike the old one, he was gloomy and vindictive.

'Don't believe,' said the strange guest, 'that I shall forgive you.
It's not so much that I got frozen, that might happen to anyone the
worse for drink, but you drove me away for no fault of mine after I had
served you so long. And what harm had the child done to you? Don't turn
away! Pass judgment on yourself for what you have done. God will not

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Online LibraryVariousSelected Polish Tales → online text (page 12 of 22)