Selected Polish Tales online

. (page 14 of 22)
Online LibraryVariousSelected Polish Tales → online text (page 14 of 22)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

engineer from Warsaw who would have the latest news and be entertained
exceptionally well, for he was courting the landowner's daughter. The
priest was longing feverishly for the moment of departure, for lie had
been left to himself for several days. He could hardly bear the look of
his snow-covered courtyard any more, having no diversion except
watching a man chop wood, and hearing the cawing of rooks. He paced to
and fro, thinking that another quarter of an hour must have gone, and
was surprised to find it was only a few minutes since he had last
looked at his watch. He ordered the samovar and lit his pipe. Then
there was a knock at the door. Jonah came in, bowing to the ground.

'I am glad to see you,' said the priest, 'there are several things in
my wardrobe that want mending.'

'God be praised for that, I haven't had work for a week past. And your
honour's lady housekeeper tells me that the clock is broken as well.'

'What? you mend clocks too?'

'Why yes, I've even got the tools to do it with. I'm also an
umbrella-mender and harness-maker, and I can glaze stewing-pans.'

'If that is so you might spend the winter here. When can you begin?'

'I'll sit down now and work through the night.'

'As you like. Ask them to give you some tea in the kitchen.'

'Begging your Reverence's pardon, may I ask that the sugar might be
served separately?'

'Don't you like your tea sweet?'

'On the contrary, I like it very sweet. But I save the sugar for my

The priest laughed at the Jew's astuteness. 'All right! have your tea
with sugar and some for your grandchildren as well. Walenty!' he called
out, 'bring me my fur coat.'

The Jew began bowing afresh. 'With an entreaty for your Reverence's
pardon, I come from Slimak's.'

'The man whose house was burnt down?'

'Not that he asked me to come, your Reverence, he would not presume to
do such a thing, but his wife is dead, they are both lying in the
stable, and I am sure he has a bad thought in his head, for no one does
so much as give him a cup of water.' The priest started.

'No one has visited him?'

'Begging your Reverence's pardon,' bowed the Jew, 'but they say in the
village, God's anger has fallen on him, so he must die without help.'
He looked into the priest's eyes as if Slimak's salvation depended on
him. His Reverence knocked his pipe on the floor till it broke.

'Then I'll go into the kitchen,' said the Jew, and took up his bundle.
The sledge-bells tinkled at the door, the valet stood ready with the
fur coat.

'I shall be wanted for the betrothal,' reflected the priest, 'that man
will last till to-morrow, and I can't bring the dead woman back to
life. It's eight o'clock, if I go to the man first there will be
nothing to go for afterwards. Give me my fur coat, Walenty.' He went
into his bedroom: 'Are the horses ready? Is it a bright night?' 'Quite
bright, your Reverence.'

'I cannot be the slave of all the people who are burnt down and all the
women who die,' he agitatedly resumed his thoughts, 'it will be time
enough to-morrow, and anyhow the man can't be worth much if no one will
help him.'...His eyes fell on the crucifix. 'Divine wounds! Here I am
hesitating between my amusement and comforting the stricken, and I am a
priest and a citizen!

Get a basket,' he said in a changed voice to the astonished servant,
'put the rest of the dinner into it. I had better take the sacrament
too,' he thought, after the surprised man had left the room, 'perhaps
he is dying. God is giving me another spell of grace instead of
condemning me eternally.'

He struck his breast and forgot that God does not count the number of
amusements preferred and bottles emptied, but the greatness of the
struggle in each human heart.


Within half an hour the priest's round ponies stood at Slimak's gate.
The priest walked towards the stable with a lantern in one hand and a
basket in the other, pushed open the door with his foot, and saw
Slimakowa's body. Further away, on the litter, sat the peasant, shading
his eyes from the light.

'Who is that?' he asked.

'It is I, your priest.'

Slimak sprang to his feet, with deep astonishment on his face. He
advanced with unsteady steps to the threshold, and gazed at the priest
with open mouth.

'What have you come for, your Reverence?'

'I have come to bring you the divine blessing. Put on your sheepskin,
it is cold here. Have something to eat.' He unpacked the basket.

Slimak stared, touched the priest's sleeve, and suddenly fell sobbing
at his feet.

'I am wretched, your Reverence...I am wretched...wretched!'

'Benedicat te omnipotens Deus!' Instead of making the sign of the
cross, the priest put his arm round the peasant and drew him on to the

'Calm yourself, brother, all will be well. God does not forsake His

He kissed him and wiped his tears. With almost a howl the peasant threw
himself at his feet.

'Now I don't mind if I die, or if I go to hell for my sins! I've had
this consolation that your Reverence has taken pity on me. If I were to
go to the Holy City on my knees, it would not be enough to repay you
for your kindness.'

He touched the ground at the priest's feet as though it were the altar.
The priest had to use much persuasion before he put on his sheepskin
and consented to touch food.

'Take a good pull,' he said, pouring out the mead.

'I dare not, your Reverence.'

'Well, then I will drink to you.' He touched the glass with his lips.

The peasant took the glass with trembling hands and drank kneeling,
swallowing with difficulty.

'Don't you like it?'

'Like it? vodka is nothing compared to this!' Slimak's voice sounded
natural again. 'Isn't it just full of spice!' he added, and revived

'Now tell me all about it,' began the priest: 'I remember you as a
prosperous gospodarz.'

'It would be a long story to tell your Reverence. One of my sons was
drowned, the other is in jail; my wife is dead, my horses were stolen,
my house burnt down. It all began with the squire's selling the
village, and with the railway and the Germans coming here. Then Josel
set everyone against me, because I had been selling fowls and other
things to the surveyors; even now he is doing his best to...'

'But why does everyone go to Josel for advice?' interrupted the priest.

'To whom is one to go, begging your Reverence's pardon? We peasants are
ignorant people. The Jews know about everything, and sometimes they
give good advice.'

The priest winced. The peasant continued excitedly:

'There were no wages coming in from the manor, and the Germans took the
two acres I had rented from the squire.'

'But let me see,' said the priest, 'wasn't it you to whom the squire
offered those two acres at a great deal less than they were worth?'

'Certainly it was me!'

'Why didn't you take the offer? I suppose you did not trust him?'

'How can one trust them when one does not know what they are talking
among themselves; they jabber like Jews, and when they talked to me
they were poking fun at me. Besides, there was some talk of free
distribution of land.'

'And you believed that?'

'Why should I not believe it? A man likes to believe what is to his
advantage. The Jews knew it wasn't true, but they won't tell.'

'Why didn't you apply for work at the railway?'

'I did, but the Germans kept me out.'

'Why couldn't you have come to me? the chief engineer was living at my
house all the time,' said the priest, getting angry.

'I beg your Reverence's pardon; I couldn't have known that, and I
shouldn't have dared to apply to your Reverence.'

'Hm! And the Germans annoyed you?'

'Oh dear, oh dear! haven't they been pestering me to sell them my land
all along, and when the fire came I gave way....'

'And you sold them the land?'

'God and my dead wife saved me from doing that. She got up from her
deathbed and laid a curse upon me if I should sell the land. I would
rather die than sell it, but all the same,' he hung his head, 'the
Germans will pay me out.'

'I don't think they can do you much harm.'

'If the Germans leave,' continued the peasant, 'I shall be up against
old Gryb, and he will do me as much harm as the Germans, or more.'

'I am a good shepherd!' the priest reflected bitterly. 'My sheep are
fighting each other like wolves, go to the Jews for advice, are
persecuted by the Germans, and I am going to entertainments!'

He got up. 'Stay here, my brother,' he said, 'I will go to the

Slimak kissed his feet and accompanied him to the sledge.

'Drive across to the village,' he directed his coachman.

'To the village?' The coachman's face, which was so chubby that it
looked as if it had been stung by bees, was comic in its astonishment:

'I thought we were going...'

'Drive where I tell you!'

Slimak leant on the fence, as in happier days.

'How could he have known about me?' he reflected. 'Is a priest like God
who knows everything? They would not have brought him word from the
village. It must have been good old Jonah. But now they will not dare
to look askance at me, because his Reverence himself has come to see
me. If he could only take the sin of my sending Maciek and the child to
their death from me, I shouldn't be afraid of anything.'

Presently the priest returned.

'Are you there, Slimak?' he called out. 'Gryb will come to you
to-morrow. Make it up with him and don't quarrel any more. I have sent
to town for a coffin and am arranging for the funeral.'

'Oh Redeemer!' sighed Slimak.

'Now, Pawel! drive on as fast as the horses will go,' cried the priest.
He pulled out his repeater watch: it was a quarter to ten.

'I shall be late,' he murmured, 'but not too late for everything; there
will be time for some fun yet.'

As soon as the sledge had melted into the darkness, and silence again
brooded over his home, an irresistible desire for sleep seized Slimak.
He dragged himself to the stable, but he hesitated. He did not wish to
lie down once more by the side of his dead wife, and went into the
cowshed. Uneasy dreams pursued him; he dreamt that his dead wife was
trying to force herself into the cowshed. He got up and looked into the
stable. Slimakowa was lying there peacefully; two faint beams of light
were reflected from the eyes which had not yet been closed.

A sledge stopped at the gate and Gryb came into the yard; his grey head
shook and his yellowish eyes moved uneasily. He was followed by his
man, who was carrying a large basket.

'I am to blame,' he cried, striking his chest, 'are you still angry
with me?'

'God give you all that you desire,' said Slimak, bowing low, 'you are
coming to me in my time of trouble.'

This humility pleased the old peasant; he grasped Slimak's hand and
said in a more natural voice: 'I tell you, I am to blame, for his
Reverence told me to say that. Therefore I am the first to make it up
with you, although I am the elder. But I must say, neighbour, you did
annoy me very much. However, I will not reproach you.'

'Forgive me the wrong I have done,' said Slimak, bending towards his
shoulder, 'but to tell you the truth, I cannot remember ever having
wronged you personally.'

'I won't mince matters, Slimak. You dealt with those railway people
without consulting me.'

'Look at what I have earned by my trading,' said Slimak, pointing to
his burnt homestead.

'Well, God has punished you heavily, and that is why I say: I am to
blame. But when you came to church and your wife - God rest her
eternally - bought herself a silk kerchief, you ought to have treated me
to at least a pint of vodka, instead of speaking impertinently to me.'

'It's true, I boasted too early.'

'And then you made friends with the Germans and prayed with them.'

'I only took off my cap. Their God is the same as ours.'

Gryb shook his clenched fist in his face.

'What! their God is the same as ours? I tell you, he must be a
different God, or why should they jabber to him in German? But never
mind,' he changed his tone, 'all that's past and gone. You deserve well
of us, because you did not let the Germans have your land. Hamer has
already offered me his farm for midsummer.'

'Is that so?'

'Of course it is so. The scoundrels threatened to drive us all away,
and they have smashed themselves against a small gospodarz of ten
acres. You deserve God's blessing and our friendship for that. God rest
your dead wife eternally! Many a time has she set you against me! I'll
bear her no grudge on that account, however. And here, you see, all of
us in the village are sending you some victuals.'

Their conversation was interrupted by the arrival of Grochowski.

'I wouldn't believe Jonah, when he came to tell me all this,' he said,
'and you here, Gryb, too? Where is the defunct?'

They approached to the stable and knelt down in the snow. Only the
murmuring of their prayers and Slimak's sobs were audible for a while.
Then the men got up and praised the dead woman's virtues.

'I am bringing you a bird,' then said Grochowski, turning to Gryb; 'he
is slightly wounded.'

'What do you mean?'

'It's your Jasiek. He attempted to steal my horses last night, and I
treated him to a little lead.'

'Where is he?'

'In the sledge outside.'

Gryb ran off at a heavy trot. Blows and cries were heard, then the old
man reappeared, dragging his son by the hair. The strong young fellow
was crying like a child. He looked dishevelled and his clothes were
torn; a bloodstained cloth was tied round his hand.

'Did you steal the Soltys' horses?' shouted his father.

'How should I not have stolen them? I did steal them!'

'Not quite,' said Grochowski, 'but he did steal Slimak's.'

'What?' cried Gryb, and began to lay on to his son again.

'I did, father. Leave off!' wailed Jasiek.

'My God, how did this come about?' asked the old man.

'That's simple enough,' sneered Grochowski, 'he found others as bad as
himself, and they robbed the whole neighbourhood, till I winged him.'

'What do you propose to do now?' asked old Gryb between his blows.

'I'll mend my ways.'...'I'll marry Orzchewski's daughter,' wailed

'Perhaps this is not quite the moment for that,' said Grochowski,
'first you will go to prison.'

'You don't mean to charge him?' asked his father.

'I should prefer not to charge him, but the whole neighbourhood is
indignant about the robberies. However, as he did not do me personally
any harm, I am not bound to charge him.'

'What will you take?'

'Not a kopek less than a hundred and fifty roubles.'

'In that case, let him go to prison.'

'A hundred and fifty to me, and eighty to Slimak for the horses.'

Gryb took to his fists again.

'Who put you up to this?'

'Leave off!' cried Jasiek; 'it was Josel.'

'And why did you do as he told you?'

'Because I owe him a hundred roubles.'

'Oh Lord!' groaned Gryb, tearing his hair.

'Well, that's nothing to tear your hair about,' said Grochowski. 'Come;
three hundred and thirty roubles between Slimak, Josel, and me; what is
that to you?'

'I won't pay it.'

'All right! In that case he will go to prison. Come along.' He took the
youth by the arm.

'Dad, have pity, I am your only son!'

The old man looked helplessly at the peasants in turn.

'Are you going to ruin my life for a paltry sum?'

'Wait...wait,' cried Gryb, seeing that the Soltys was in earnest. He
took Slimak aside.

'Neighbour, if there is to be peace between us,' he said, 'I'll tell
you what you will have to do.'


'You'll have to marry my sister. You are a widower, she is a widow. You
have ten acres, she has fifteen. I shall take her land, because it is
close to mine, and give you fifteen acres of Hamer's land. You will
have a gospodarstwo of twenty-five acres all in one piece.'

Slimak reflected for a while.

'I think,' he said at last,' Gawdrina's land is better than Hamer's.'

'All right! You shall have a bit more.'

Slimak scratched his head. 'Well, I don't know,' he said.

'It's agreed, then,' said Gryb, 'and now I'll tell you what you will
have to do in return. You will pay a hundred and fifty roubles to
Grochowski and a hundred to Josel.'

Slimak demurred.

'I haven't buried my wife yet.'

The old man's temper was rising.

'Rubbish! don't be a fool! How can a gospodarz get along without a
wife? Yours is dead and gone, and if she could speak, she would say:

"Marry, Josef, and don't turn up your nose at a benefactor like Gryb."'

'What are you quarrelling about?' cried Grochowski.

'Look here, I am offering him my sister and fifteen acres of land, four
cows and a pair of horses, to say nothing of the household property,
and he can't make up his mind,' said Gryb, with awry face.

'Why, that's certainly worth while,' said Grochowski, 'and not a bad

'Aye, a good, hefty woman,' cried Gryb.

'You'll be quite a gentleman, Slimak,' added Grochowski.

Slimak sighed. 'I'm sorry,' he said, 'that Jagna did not live to see

The agreement was carried out, and before Holy Week both Slimak and
Gryb's son were married. By the autumn Slimak's new gospodarstwo was
finished, and an addition to his family expected. His second wife not
unfrequently reminded him that he had been a beggar and owed all his
good fortune to her. At such times he would slip out of the house, lie
under the lonely pine and meditate, recalling the strange struggle,
when the Germans had lost their land and he his nearest and dearest.

When everybody else had forgotten Slimakowa, Stasiek, Maciek, and the
child, he often remembered them, and also the dog Burek and the cow
doomed to the butcher's knife for want of fodder.

Silly Zoska died in prison, old Sobieska at the inn. The others with
whom my story is concerned, not excepting old Jonah, are alive and




It was in the fourth year of my exile to the metropolis of the Siberian
frosts, a few days before Christmas, when one of our comrades and
fellow-sufferers, a former student at the university of Kiev, who
hailed from Little-Russia, called in to give us some interesting news.
One of his intimate friends - also an ex-student and fellow-
sufferer - was to pass through our town on his way back from a
far-distant Yakut aúl,[1] where he had lived for three years;
he was due to arrive on Christmas Eve.

[Footnote 1: _Aúl: a hamlet_.]

We had repeatedly met people who knew the life in the nearer Yakut
settlements; now and then we had seen temporary or permanent
inhabitants of the so-called Yakut 'towns' of Vjerchojansk, Vihijsk,
and Kalymsk. But the nearer aúls and towns were populous centres of
human life in comparison to those far-off deserted and desolate places;
they gave one no conception of what the latter might be like. Certainly
the fact that the worst criminals, when they were sent to those
regions, preferred to return to hard labour rather than live in liberty
there, gave us an illustration of the charms of that life, yet it told
us nothing definite.

Bad - we were told - very bad it was out there, but in what way bad it
was impossible to judge, even from the knowledge we had of life in less
remote regions. Who would venture to draw conclusions from the little
we knew as to the thousand small details which made up that grey,
monotonous existence? Who could clearly bring them before the
imagination? Only experience could reveal them in their appalling
nakedness. Of one thing we were certain, that was that in a measure as
the populousness decreases, and you move away in a centrifugal
direction from where we were, life becomes harder and more and more
distressing for human beings. In the south, on the wild high plateaus
of the Aldon; in the east, on the mountain slopes of the
Stanovoi-Chebret, where a single Tungus family constitutes the sole
population along a river of 300 versts; in the west on the desolate
heights of the Viluj, near the great Zeresej Lake; in the north at the
mysterious outlets of the Quabrera, the desert places of the Olensk,
Indigirika, and Kolyma, life becomes like a Danteësque hell, consisting
in nothing but ice, snow and gales, and lighted up by the lurid
blood-red rays of the northern light.

But no! those deserts, equal in extent to the half of Europe, are only
the purgatory, not yet the real Siberian hell. You still find woods
there, poor, thin, dwarfed woods, it is true, but where there is wood
there is fire and vitality. The true hell of human torture begins
beyond the line of the woods; then there is nothing but ice and snow;
ice that does not even melt in the plains in summer - and in the midst
of that icy desert, miserable human beings thrown upon this shore by an
alien fate.

I shall never forget the impression which any chance bit of information
on the characteristic features, the horrible details of that life, used
to make upon me. Even clearly defined facts and exact technical terms
bear quite a different aspect in the light of such unusual local

I have a vivid remembrance of a story told me by a former official; he
described to me how when he was stationed in V. as Ispravnik, 'a
certain gentleman' was sent out to him with orders to take him to the
settlement in Zaszyversk.[1]

[Footnote 1: Pronounce: Zashiversk.]

'You see, little brother,' said the ex-Ispravnik, 'the town of
Zaszyversk does exist. Even on a small map of Siberia you can easily
find it to the right of a large blank space; if you remember your
geography lessons you will even know that it is designated as "town out
of governmental bounds". An appointment to such a place means for an
official that he is expected to send in his resignation; as for the
towns, it means that they have been degraded by having ceased to be the
seat of certain local government. In this case there was a yet deeper
significance in the description, for the town of Zaszyversk does, as I
said, exist, but only in the imagination of cartographers and in
geography manuals, not in reality. So much so is it non-existent that
not a single house, not a yurta,[1] not a hovel marks the place which
is pointed out to you on the map. When I read the order I could not
believe my eyes, and though I was sober I reeled. I called another
official and showed him the curious document.

[Footnote 1: Yurta: hut of the native Yakut.]

'He was an old, experienced hand at the office, but when he saw this
order, the paper dropped from his hands. "Where to?" I asked. "To
Zaszyversk!" We looked at each other. Nice things that young man must
have been up to! There he stood, looked and listened and understood

'He was a handsome fellow but gloomy and stuck up. I asked him one
thing after another, was he in need of anything? and so on, but he
answered nothing but "Yes" or "No". Well, my little brother, I thought
to myself, you will soon sing a different tune! I ordered three troikas
to be brought round; he was put into the first with the Cossack who
escorted him, I was in the second with an old Cossack, who remembered
where this town of Zaszyversk had once stood, and the third contained
provisions; then we started. First we drove straight on for twenty-four
hours; during this time we still stopped at stations where we changed
horses, and we covered 200 versts. The second and third days we covered
150 versts, but we did not meet a living soul, and we spent the nights
in the large barnlike buildings without windows or chimneys and with
only a fireplace, which are found on the road; they are called

'Our prisoner was obviously beginning to feel rather bad, so he
addressed me from time to time; at last he tried to get information out
of me concerning the life in Zaszyversk. "How many inhabitants were
there? what was the town like? was there any chance of his finding
something to do there, perhaps private lessons?" But now it was my turn
to answer him: "Yes" or "No". On the fourth day. towards morning, we
entered upon a glacier. We had arrived in the region where the ice does
not disappear even in summer. When we had advanced ten versts on the
ice, the old Cossack showed me the place where sixty years ago a few
yurtas had stood which were called in geographical terms "Zaszyversk,
town out of governmental bounds".

"Stop," I cried, "let the young gentleman get out; here we are! This is
the town of Zaszyversk...."

'The man did not understand at once, he opened his eyes wide and
thought it was a joke, or that I had lost my reason. I had to explain
the situation to him.... At last he understood.'

The ex-Ispravnik laughed dryly. 'Will you believe me or not?' he

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 14 16 17 18 19 20 21 22

Online LibraryVariousSelected Polish Tales → online text (page 14 of 22)