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let these wrongs be done and keep silent.'

'What shall I say?' thought Slimak, bathed in perspiration. 'He is
telling the truth, I am a scoundrel. He shall fix the punishment,
perhaps he will get it over quickly.'

His wife moved and he opened his eyes, but closed them again. A rosy
brightness filled the room, the frost glittered in flowers on the
window panes. 'Daylight?' he thought.

No, it was not daylight, the rosy brightness trembled. A smell of
burning was heavy in the room.


He looked into the room; Zoska had disappeared.

'I knew it!' he exclaimed, and ran out into the yard.

His house was indeed on fire; the roof towards the highroad was alight,
but owing to the thick layers of snow the flames spread but slowly; he
could still have saved the house, but he did not even think of this.

'Get up, Jagna,' he cried, running back into the alcove, 'the house is
on fire!'

'Leave me alone,' said the delirious woman, covering her head with the
sheepskin. He seized her and, stumbling over the threshold, carried her
into the shed, fetched her clothes and bedding, broke open the chest
and took out his money; finally he threw everything he could lay hands
on out of the window. Here was at least something tangible to fight.
The whole roof was now ablaze; smoke and flames were coming into the
room from the boarded ceiling. He was dragging the bench through the
brightly illuminated yard when he happened to look at the barn; he
stood petrified. Flames were licking at it, and there stood Zoska
shaking her clenched fist at him and shouting: 'That's my thanks to
you, Slimak, for taking care of my child, now you shall die as she

She flew out of the yard and up the hill; he could see her by the light
of the fire, dancing and clapping her hands.

'Fire, fire!' she shouted.

Slimak reeled like a wild animal after the first shot. Then he slowly
went towards the barn and sat down, not thinking of seeking help. This
was the beginning of the divine punishment for the wrong he had done.

'We shall all die!' he murmured.

Both buildings were burning like pillars of fire, and in spite of the
frost Slimak felt hot in the shed. Suddenly shouts and clattering came
from the settlement; the Germans were coming to his assistance. Soon
the yard was swarming with them, men, women and children with hand-
fire-engines and buckets. They formed into groups, and at Fritz Hamer's
command began to pull down the burning masses and to put out the fire.
Laughing and emulating each other in daring, they went into the fire as
into a dance; some of the most venturesome climbed up the walls of the
burning buildings. Zoska approached once more from the side of the

'Never mind the Germans helping you, you will die all the same,' she

'Who is that?' shouted the settlers, 'catch her!'

But Zoska was too quick for them.

'I suppose it was she who set fire to your house?' asked Fritz.

'No one else but she.'

Fritz was silent for a moment.

'It would be better for you to sell us the land.'

The peasant hung his head....

The barn could not be saved, but the walls of the cottage were still
standing; some of the people were busy putting out the fire, others
surrounded the sick woman.

'What are you going to do?' Fritz began again.

'We will live in the stable.'

The women whispered that they had better be taken to the settlement,
but the men shook their heads, saying the woman might be infectious.
Fritz inclined to this opinion and ordered her to be well wrapped up
and taken into the stable.

'We will send you what you need,' he said.

'God reward you,' said Slimak, embracing his knees.

Fritz took Hermann aside.

'Drive full speed to Wolka,' he said, 'and fetch miller Knap; we may be
able to settle this affair to-night.'

'It's high time we did,' replied the other, audibly, 'we shan't hold
out till the spring unless we do.'

Fritz swore.

Nevertheless, he took leave benevolently. Bending over the sick woman
he said: 'She is quite unconscious.'

But in a strangely decided voice she ejaculated: 'Ah! unconscious!'

He drew back in confusion. 'She is delirious,' he said.

At daybreak the Germans brought the promised help, but Slimak paced
backwards and forwards among the ruins of his homestead, from which the
smell of smouldering embers rose pungently. He looked at his household
goods, tumbled into the yard. How many times had he sat on that bench
and cut notches and crosses into it when a boy. That heap of
smouldering ruins represented his storehouse and the year's crop. How
small the cottage looked now that it was reduced to walls, and how
large the chimney! He took out his money, hid it under a heap of dry
manure in the stable and strolled about again. Up the hill he went,
with a feeling that they were talking about him in the village and
would come to his help. But there was no one to be seen on the
boundless covering of snow; here and there smoke rose from the

His imagination, keener than usual, conjured up old pictures. He
fancied he was harrowing on the hill with the two chestnuts who were
whisking their tails under his nose; the sparrows were twittering,
Stasiek gazing into the river; by the bridge his wife was beating the
linen, he could hear the resounding smacks, while the squire's
brother-in-law was wildly galloping up and down the valley. Jendrek and
Magda were answering each other in snatches of songs....

Suddenly he was awakened from his dreams by the stench of his burnt
cottage; he looked up, and everything he saw became abominable to him.
The frozen river, into which his child would never gaze again; the
empty, hideous homestead; he longed to escape from it all and go far
away and forget Stasiek and Maciek and the whole accursed gospodarstwo.
He could buy land more cheaply elsewhere with the money he would get
from the Germans. What was the good of the land if it was ruining the
people on it?

He went into the stable and lay down near his wife, who was moaning
deliriously, and soon fell asleep.

At noon old Hamer appeared, accompanied by a German woman who carried
two bowls of hot soup. He stood over Slimak and poked him with his

'Hey, get up!'

Slimak roused himself and looked about heavily; seeing the hot food he
ate greedily. Hamer sat down in the doorway, smoking his pipe and
watching Slimak; he nodded contentedly to himself.

'I've been down to the village to ask Gryb and the other gospodarze to
come and help you, for that is a Christian duty....'

He waited for the peasant's thanks, but Slimak went on eating and did
not look at him.

'I told them they ought to take you in; but they said, God was
punishing you for the death of the labourer and the child and they
didn't wish to interfere. They are no Christians.'

Slimak had finished eating, but he remained silent.

'Well, what are you going to do?'

Slimak wiped his mouth and said: 'I shall sell.' Hamer poked his pipe
with deliberation.

'To whom?'

'To you.'

Hamer again busied himself with his pipe.

'All right! I am willing to buy, as you have fallen upon bad times. But
I can only give you seventy roubles.'

'You were giving a hundred not long ago.'

'Why didn't you take it?'

'That's true, why didn't I take it? Everyone profits as he can.'

'Have you never tried to profit?'

'I have.'

'Then will you take it?'

'Why shouldn't I take it?'

'We will settle the matter at my house to-night.'

'The sooner the better.'

'Well, since it is so,' Hamer added after a while, 'I will give you
seventy-five roubles, and you shan't be left to die here. You and your
wife can come to the school; you can spend the winter with us and I
will give you the same pay as my own farm-labourers.'

Slimak winced at the word 'farm-labourer', but he said nothing.

'And your gospodarze,' concluded Hamer, 'are brutes. They will do
nothing for you.'

Before sunset a sledge conveyed the unconscious woman to the
settlement. Slimak remained, recovered his money from under the manure,
collected a few possessions and milked the cows.

The dumb animals looked reproachfully at him and seemed to ask: 'Are
you sure you have done the best you could, gospodarz?'

'What am I to do?' he returned, 'the place is unlucky, it is bewitched.
Perhaps the Germans can take the spell away, I can't.'

He felt as if his feet were being held to the ground, but he spat at
it. 'Much I have to be thankful to you for! Barren land, far from
everybody so that thieves may profit!' He would not look back.

On the way he met two German farm-labourers, who had come to spend the
night in the stable; as he passed them, they laughed.

'Catch me spending the winter with you scoundrels! I'm off directly the
wife is well and the boy out of jail.'

A black shadow detached itself from the gate when he reached the
settlement, 'Is that you, schoolmaster?'

'Yes. So you have consented after all to sell your land?'

Slimak was silent.

'Perhaps it's the best thing you can do. If you can't make much of it
yourself, at least you can save others.' He looked round and lowered
his voice. 'But mind you bargain well, for you are doing them a good
turn. Miller Knap will pay cash down as soon as the contract has been
signed and give his daughter to Wilhelm. Otherwise Hirschgold will turn
the Hamers out at midsummer and sell the land to Gryb. They have a
heavy contract with the Jew.'

'What? Gryb would buy the settlement?'

'Indeed he would. He is anxious to settle his son too, and Josel has
been sniffing round for a month past. So there's your chance, bargain

'Why, damn it,' said Slimak, 'I would rather have a hundred Germans
than that old Judas.'

A door creaked and the schoolmaster changed the conversation. 'Come
this way, your wife is in the schoolroom.'

'Is that Slimak?' Fritz called out.

'It is I.'

'Don't stay long with your wife, she is being looked after, and we want
you at daybreak; you must sleep in the kitchen.'

The noise of loud conversation and clinking of glasses came from the
back of the house, but the large schoolroom was empty, and only lighted
by a small lamp. His wife was lying on a plank bed; a pungent smell of
vinegar pervaded the room. That smell took the heart out of Slimak;
surely his wife must be very ill! He stood over her; her eye-lashes
twitched and she looked steadily at him.

'Is it you, Josef?'

'Who else should it be?'

Her hands moved about restlessly on the sheepskin; she said distinctly:
'What are you doing, Josef, what are you doing?'

'You see I am standing here.'

'Ah yes, you are standing there...but what are you doing? I know
everything, never fear!'

'Go away, gospodarz,' hurriedly cried the old woman, pushing him
towards the door, 'she is getting excited, it isn't good for her.'

'Josef!' cried Slimakowa, 'come back! Josef, I must speak to you!' The
peasant hesitated.

'You are doing no good,' whispered the schoolmaster, 'she is rambling,
she may go to sleep when you are out of sight.'

He drew Slimak into the passage, and Fritz Hamer at once took him to
the further room.

Miller Knap and old Hamer were sitting at a brightly lighted table
behind their beer mugs, blowing clouds of smoke from their pipes. The
miller had the appearance of a huge sack of flour as he sat there in
his shirtsleeves, holding a full pot of beer in his hand and wiping the
perspiration off his forehead. Gold studs glittered in his shirt.

'Well, you are going to let us have your land at last?' he shouted.

'I don't know,' said the peasant in a low voice, 'maybe I shall sell
it.' The miller roared with laughter.

'Wilhelm,' he bellowed, as if Wilhelm, who was officiating at the
beer-barrel on the bench, were half a mile off, 'pour out some beer for
this man. Drink to my health and I'll drink to yours, although you
never used to bring me your corn to grind. But why didn't you sell us
your land before?'

'I don't know,' said the peasant, taking a long pull.

'Fill up his glass,' shouted the miller, 'I will tell you why; it's
because you don't know your own mind. Determination is what you want.
I've said to myself: I will have a mill at Wolka, and a mill at Wolka I
have, although the Jews twice set fire to it. I said: My son shall be a
doctor, and a doctor he will be. And now I've said: Hamer, your son
must have a windmill, so he must have a windmill. Pour out another
glass, Wilhelm, good my son-in-law brews it. What? no more
beer? Then we'll go to bed.'

Fritz pushed Slimak into the kitchen, where one of the farm-hands was
asleep already. He felt stupefied; whether it was with the beer or with
Knap's noisy conversation, he could not tell. He sat down on his plank
bed and felt cheerful. The noise of conversation in German reached him
from the adjoining room; then the Hamers left the house. Miller Knap
stamped about the room for a while; presently his thick voice repeated
the Lord's prayer while he was pulling off his boots and throwing them
into a corner: 'Amen amen,' he concluded, and flung himself heavily
upon the bed; a few moments later noises as if he were being throttled
and murdered proclaimed that he was asleep.

The moon was throwing a feeble light through the small squares of the

Between waking and sleeping Slimak continued to meditate: 'Why
shouldn't I sell? It's better to buy fifteen acres of land elsewhere,
than to stay and have Jasiek Gryb as a neighbour. The sooner I sell,
the better.' He got up as if he wished to settle the matter at once,
laughed quietly to himself and felt more and more intoxicated.

Then he saw a human shadow outlined against the window pane; someone
was trying to look into the room. The peasant approached the window and
became sober. He ran into the passage and pulled the door open with
trembling hands. Frosty air fanned his face. His wife was standing
outside, still trying to look through the window.

'Jagna, for God's sake, what are you doing here? Who dressed you?'

'I dressed myself, but I couldn't manage my boots, they are quite
crooked. Come home,' she said, drawing him by the hand.

'Where, home? Are you so ill that you don't know our home is burnt
down? Where will you go on a bitter night like this?'

Hamer's mastiffs were beginning to growl. Slimakowa hung on her
husband's arm. 'Come home, come home,' she urged stubbornly, 'I will
not die in a strange house, I am a gospodyni, I will not stay here with
the Swabians. The priests would not even sprinkle holy water on my

She pulled him and he went; the dogs went after them for a while
snapping at their clothes; they made straight for the frozen river, so
as to reach their own nest the sooner. On the riverbank they stopped
for a moment, the tired woman was out of breath.

'You have let yourself be tempted by the Germans to sell them your
land! You think I don't know. Perhaps you will say it is not true?' she
cried, looking wildly into his eyes. He hung his head.

'You traitor, you son of a dog!' she burst out. 'Sell your land! You
would sell the Lord Jesus to the Jews! Tired of being a gospodarz, are
you? What is Jendrek to do? And is a gospodyni to die in a stranger's

She drew him into the middle of the frozen river. 'Stand here, Judas,'
she cried, seizing him by the hands. 'Will you sell your land? Listen!
Sell it, and God will curse you and the boy. This ice shall break if
you don't give up that devil's thought! I won't give you peace after
death, you shall never sleep! When you close your eyes I will come and
open them again...listen!' she cried in a paroxysm of rage, 'if you
sell the land, you shall not swallow the holy sacrament, it shall turn
to blood in your mouth.'

'Jesus!' whispered the man.

'...Where you tread, the grass shall be blasted! You shall throw a
spell on everyone you look at, and misfortune shall befall them.'

'Jesus...Jesus!' he groaned, tearing himself from her and stopping his

'Will you sell the land?' she cried, with her face close to his. He
shook his head. 'Not if you have to draw your last breath lying on
filthy litter?'

'Not though I had to help me God!'

The woman was staggering; her husband carried her to the other bank and
reached the stable, where the two farm labourers were installed.

'Open the door!' He hammered until one of them appeared.

'Clear out! I am going to put my wife in here.'

They demurred and he kicked them both out. They went off, cursing and
threatening him.

Slimak laid his wife down on the warm litter and strolled about the
yard, thinking that he must presently fetch help for her and a doctor.
Now and then he looked into the stable; she seemed to be sleeping
quietly. Her great peacefulness began to strike him, his head was
swimming, he heard noises in his ears; he knelt down and pulled her by
the hand; she was dead, even cold.

'Now I don't care if I go to the devil,' he said, raked some straw into
a corner and was asleep within a few minutes.

It was afternoon when he was at last awakened by old Sobieska.

'Get up, Slimak! your wife is dead! God's faith! dead as a stone.'

'How can I help it?' said the peasant, turning over and drawing his
sheepskin over his head.

'But you must buy a coffin and notify the parish.'

'Let anyone who cares do that.'

'Who will do it? In the village they say it's God's punishment on you.
And won't the Germans take it out of you! That fat man has quarrelled
with them. Josel says you are now reaping the benefit of selling your
fowls: he threatened me if I came here to see you. Get up now!'

'Let me be or I'll kick you!'

'You godless man, is your wife to lie there without Christian burial?'
He advanced his boot so vehemently that the old woman ran screaming out
along the highroad.

Slimak pushed to the door and lay down again. A hard
peasant-stubbornness had seized him. He was certain that he was past
salvation. He neither accused himself nor regretted anything; he only
wanted to be left to sleep eternally. Divine pity could have saved him,
but he no longer believed in divine pity, and no human hand would do so
much as give him a cup of water.

While the sound of the evening-bells floated through the air, and the
women in the cottages whispered the Angelus, a bent figure approached
the gospodarstwo, a sack on his back, a stick in his hand; the glory of
the setting sun surrounded him. Such as these are the 'angels' which
the Lord sends to people in the extremity of their sorrow.

It was Jonah Niedoperz, the oldest and poorest Jew in the
neighbourhood; he traded in everything and never had any money to keep
his large family, with whom he lived in a half-ruined cottage with
broken windowpanes. Jonah was on his way to the village and was
meditating deeply. Would he get a job there? would he live to have a
dinner of pike on the Sabbath? would his little grandchildren ever have
two shirts to their backs?

'Aj waj!' he muttered, 'and they even took the three roubles from me!'
He had never forgotten that robbery in the autumn, for it was the
largest sum he had ever possessed.

His glance fell on the burnt homestead. Good God! if such a thing
should ever befall the cottage where his wife and daughters,
sons-in-law and grandchildren lived! His emotion grew when he heard the
cows lowing miserably. He approached the stable.

'Slimak! My good lady gospodyni!' he cried, tapping at the door. He was
afraid to open it lest he should be suspected of prying into other
people's business.

'Who is that?' asked Slimak.

'It's only I, old Jonah,' he said, and peeped in, 'but what's wrong
with your honours?' he asked in astonishment.

'My wife is dead.' 'Dead? how dead? what do you mean by such a joke?
Ajwaj! really-dead?' He looked attentively at her.

'Such a good gospodyni...what a misfortune, God defend us! And you are
lying there and don't see about the funeral?'

'There may as well be two,' murmured the peasant.

'How two? are you ill?'


The Jew shook his head and spat. 'It can't be like this; if you won't
move I will go and give notice; tell me what to do.'

Slimak did not answer. The cows began to low again.

'What is the matter with the cows?' the Jew asked interestedly.

'I suppose they want water.'

'Then why don't you water them?'

No answer came. The Jew looked at Slimak and waited, then he tapped his
forehead. 'Where is the pail, gospodarz?'

'Leave me alone.'

But Jonah did not give in. He found the pail, ran to the ice-hole and
watered the cows; he had sympathy for cows, because he dreamt of
possessing one himself one day, or at least a goat. Then he put the
pail close to Slimak. He was exhausted with this unusually hard work.

'Well, gospodarz, what is to happen now?'

His pity touched Slimak, but failed to rouse him. He raised his head.
'If you should see Grochowski, tell him not to sell the land before
Jendrek is of age.'

'But what am I to do now, when I get to the village?'

Slimak had relapsed into silence.

The Jew rested his chin in his hand and pondered for a while; at last
he took his bundle and stick and went off. The miserable old man's pity
was so strong that he forgot his own needs and only thought of saving
the other. Indeed, he was unable to distinguish between himself and his
fellow-creature, and he felt as if he himself were lying on the straw
beside his dead wife and must rouse himself at all costs.

He went as fast as his old legs would carry him straight to Grochowski;
by the time he arrived it was dark. He knocked, but received no answer,
waited for a quarter of an hour and then walked round the house.
Despairing at last of making himself heard, he was just going to
depart, when Grochowski suddenly confronted him, as if the ground had
produced him.

'What do you want, Jew?' asked the huge man, concealing some long
object behind his back.

'What do I want?' quavered the frightened Jew, 'I have come straight
from Slimak's. Do you know that his house is burnt down, his wife is
dead, and he is lying beside her, out of his wits? He talks as if he
had a filthy idea in his head, and he hasn't even watered the cows.'

'Listen, Jew,' said Grochowski fiercely, 'who told you to come here and
lie to me? is it those horse-stealers?'

'What horse-stealers? I've come straight from Slimak....'

'Lies! You won't draw me away from here, whatever you do.'

The Jew now perceived that it was a gun which Grochowski was hiding
behind his back, and the sight so unnerved him that he nearly fell
down. He fled at full speed along the highroad. Even now, however, he
did not forget Slimak, but walked on towards the village to find the

The priest had been in the parish for several years. He was middle-aged
and extremely good-looking, and possessed the education and manners of
a nobleman. He read more than any of his neighbours, hunted, was
sociable, and kept bees. Everybody spoke well of him, the nobility
because he was clever and fond of society, the Jews because he would
not allow them to be oppressed, the settlers because he entertained
their Pastors, the peasants because he renovated the church, conducted
the services with much pomp, preached beautiful sermons, and gave to
the poor. But in spite of this there was no intimate touch between him
and his simple parishioners. When they thought of him, they felt that
God was a great nobleman, benevolent and merciful, but not friends with
the first comer. The priest felt this and regretted it. No peasant had
ever invited him to a wedding or christening. At first he had tried to
break through their shyness, and had entered into conversations with
them; but these ended in embarrassment on both sides and he left it
off. 'I cannot act the democrat,' he thought irritably.

Sometimes when he had been left to himself for several days owing to
bad roads, he had pricks of conscience.

'I am a Pharisee,' he thought; 'I did not become a priest only to
associate with the nobility, but to serve the humble.'

He would then lock himself in, pray for the apostolic spirit, vow to
give away his spaniel and empty his cellar of wine.

But as a rule, just as the spirit of humility and renunciation was
beginning to be awakened, Satan would send him a visitor.

'God have mercy! fate is against me,' he would mutter, get up from his
knees, give orders for the kitchen and cellar, and sing jolly songs and
drink like an Uhlan a quarter of an hour afterwards.

To-night, at the time when Jonah was drawing near to the Parsonage, he
was getting ready for a party at a neighbouring landowner's to meet an

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Online LibraryVariousSelected Polish Tales → online text (page 13 of 22)