Selected Polish Tales online

. (page 15 of 22)
Online LibraryVariousSelected Polish Tales → online text (page 15 of 22)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

continued. 'Look here, I swear by the cross' - he crossed himself
spaciously, bowing to the images of the saints - that fellow's eyes
became glassy... his jaws chattered as in a fever. It was a business!

'And I, a tough old official, I put my hands to my forehead. You should
have seen how the gentleman's pride disappeared in a moment; he became
soft as wax and so humble... pliable as silk he was!

'"I adjure you by the wounds of Christ," he cried, stretching out his
hands to me, "let the love of God come into your heart! I have not been
condemned to death, there is nothing very serious against me, I have
been too overbearing, that is all."

'"Oh," I said, "well, you see, pride is a great sin."

'And whether you will believe me or won't' - he crossed himself again - '
the man wept like a child when I told him I would take him to the
nearest Yakut yurta, at a distance of thirty versts from the town of
Zaszyversk, and I swear to you for the third time it was with joy that
he wept... although he was not much better off in that yurta....'

It is easy to imagine how eagerly we received the news of the arrival
of a man who had actually been living somewhere at the end of the world
under conditions which had completely isolated him for three whole
years; yet it was said that he was returning into this world sound in
body and mind. We inhabitants of our own special town were not living
in the most enviable of circumstances either, but we all knew that they
were infinitely happier than they might have been.

A passionate desire seized us to look upon that life out there in its
unveiled nakedness, its horrible cruelty. This curiosity meant more
than narrow selfishness; it had a special reason.

The fact that a human being had been able to survive in that
far-distant world, bore witness to the strength and resistance of the
human spirit; the iron will and energy of the one doubled and steeled
the strength of all the others.

What we had heard so far of those who were battling with their fate at
the end of the world had not been too comforting. Therefore the
question whether and how one could live and suffer there, was a vital
one for us.

And now the news came unexpectedly that one of our own class, a man
closely allied to us by his intellectual development and a number of
ways and customs, had actually lived for three years in a yurta not
much better situated than the one behind the imaginary town of
Zaszyversk. This unknown youth, student of a university not our own,
became dear to us. We all - Russians, Poles, and Jews - bound together by
our common fate, made up our minds to celebrate his arrival, and as it
was timed for Christmas Eve, we were going to prepare a solemn feast in
his honour.

As I was the one who had the greatest experience in culinary affairs, I
was charged with the arrangement of the dinner, supported by a young
student, and by the intense interest of the whole colony. I am sure
that neither I nor my dear scullion have ever in our lives before or
after worked as hard for two days in the kitchen as we did then.

The student was not only a great collector of everything useful for our
daily life, he was also deeply versed in the knowledge of the Yakut in
general. While we were cooking and roasting we told one another the
most interesting things, and thus stimulated each other to such a
degree that the dinner, originally planned on simple lines, began to
assume Lucullian dimensions.

We knew only too well how miserable the life in the nearest Yakut
yurtas was, that there was a want of the most necessary European food,
such as would be found in the poorest peasant's home; above all, the
want of bread - simple daily bread - was very pronounced among the poorer
populations. It was not surprising that we two, possessed by gloomy
pictures which we recalled to our memory, fell into a sort of
cooking-fever. Like a mother who remembers the favourite dishes of the
child she has not seen for a long time, and whom she expects home on a
certain day, we kept on racking our brains for, agreeable surprises for
our guest. One or the other would constantly ask:

'What do you think, comrade, wouldn't he like this or that?'

'Well, of course, he would thoroughly enjoy that. Just think, counting
the journeys, it must be a good five years since he has eaten food fit
for human beings.'

'Shall we add that?'

'All right!'

And one of us ran to the market-place to fetch the necessary
ingredients from the shops, another secured kitchen utensils, and soon
another course enriched the menu. At last the supply of kitchen
utensils gave out, and want of time as well as physical exhaustion put
a stop to further exertions. Our enthusiasm had communicated itself to
all the participants of the feast, for they were all of a responsive
disposition, and declared themselves charmed with our inventiveness and
energy. I and my scullion were proud of our work. A huge fish, weighing
twenty pounds, which after much trouble we had succeeded in boiling
whole, was considered the crowning success of our labour and art. We
rightly anticipated that this magnificent fish, prepared with an
appallingly highly seasoned and salted sauce, would move the hardest
hearts. Also, we did not forget a small Christmas tree, and decorated
it as best we could in honour of our guest.

At last the longed-for day came. The student started at dawn for the
nearest posting station to await the newcomer and bring him to us.
Before two o'clock, when it began to be dark, we were all assembled,
and soon after two the melancholy sound of the sleighbells announced
the arrival of the students. We hurriedly pulled on our furs and went
out. The sleigh and the travellers were entirely covered with snow,
long icicles hung from the horses' nostrils when they whipped into the
courtyard, they were covered with a fine crust of ice. Another moment
and they stood still in front of the door. Every man bared his
head...there were some who had grown grey in misery and sorrow.

I will not describe our first greeting - I could not do so even if I
would. We did not know each other, and yet how near we felt! I doubt
whether it will ever fall to my share again to be one of a number of
human beings so different in birth and station in life, yet so nearly
related, so closely tied to each other as we were on the day when we
greeted our guest.

He was small and thin - very thin. His complexion showed yellow and
black, much more than ours did; he seemed marked for life by an earthen
colour; his deeply sunk eyes were the only feature which was burning
with vitality, they had a phosphorescent glow.

It had grown quite dark by the time he had changed his clothes and
warmed himself, and we were sitting down to our dinner. Noise and
vivacity predominated in our small abode; a cheerful mood rose like an
overflowing wave, washing away all signs of sorrow and bitterness.

'Let us be cheerful!'

Louder and louder this cry arose, now here, now there, and when our
guest took it up even the gloomiest faces brightened. We broke the
sacred wafer, then we emptied the first glasses. My industrious
scullion had been deeply moved by a folk-song from the Ukraine, one of
those songs rich in poetical feeling and simple metaphor which go
straight to the heart; he therefore got up to make the welcoming
speech, and, encouraged by the tears of joy which rose in the eyes of
our guest, he quite took possession of him. He told him that he and I
had worked uninterruptedly for two days and nights in the sweat of our
brows, so as to give him a noble repast after his many days of
privation and hunger; he forecast the whole menu, beginning with his
favourite Kutja, he drew close to him and put his arm round his neck,
laughing gaily, and seemingly inspiring him so that he wept tears of

Our animated mood rose higher and higher. A storm of applause greeted
the first course. The student filled the guest's plate to the brim. At
last the harmonious rattle of the spoons replaced the laughing and
talking. 'Excellent,' was the universal verdict.

My scullion was in raptures and loudly assented; finally he too became
silent and applied himself like us to his plate.

But what in the name of God did this mean? We were all eating, only our
guest fumbled about with his spoon and stirred his soup without eating,
laughing the while with a suppressed, hardly audible laugh.

'My God, what is it? why don't you eat, comrade?' several voices called
in unison. 'The scullion has been exciting him too much! Off with him!
Our guest must have serious people next to him.' The student obediently
changed places, and we turned to our food again. But still our guest
did not eat.

What was the matter? We stopped eating and all eyes were turned
questioningly upon him. Our silent anxiety was sufficiently eloquent.
He perceived, felt it and said:

'I... forgive me... I... my happiness... I am so sorry... I do not want
to trouble you, and I fear I shall spoil your pleasure. I beg you... I
entreat you, dear brothers, take no notice of is nothing, it
will pass,' and he broke into a strange sobbing laugh.

'Jesus, Mary!' we all cried, for we had not noticed before how
unnatural his laugh was; there was no further thought of eating; and
he, when he saw the general anxiety, mastered himself with an effort
and said rapidly amidst the general silence:

'I thought you knew what the life was like that I have lived for three
years, but I see you don't know it; when I realized this I tried...
I... well, I tried while you were eating and drinking to swallow a
small piece of bread... just a tiny piece of bread... but I cannot do
it... I cannot! You see, for three years... three whole years I have
tasted no salt... I ate all my food without salt, and this bread is
rather salt - very salt in fact, it is burning and scorching me, and
probably all the other things are also very salt.' 'Certainly, some
were even salted too much in our haste and eagerness,' I answered
simultaneously with the student.

'Well then, eat, beloved brothers, eat, but I cannot eat anything; I
shall watch you with great pleasure - eat, I beg you fervently!' and
with hysterical laughter and tears he sank back into his seat.

Now we understood this laugh which was like a spasm....

Not one of us was able to swallow the food which he had in his mouth.

The misery of the existence of which we had longed to know something
had lifted the veil off a small portion of its mysteries.

We all dropped our spoons and hung our heads.

How vain, how small appeared to us now the trouble we had taken about
the food, how clumsy our childish enjoyment!

And while we looked at the ravaged face of our brother, convulsed with
spasmodic laughter and tears, a feeling of horror seized upon us....

We felt as if the spectre of death had risen from a lonely yurta
somewhere behind the lost town of Zaszyversk and was staring at us with
cold glassy eyes....

A dead silence brooded over the frightened assembly.





I made his acquaintance accidentally; the chance which led to it was
caused by the peculiar conditions of the Yakut spring. My readers will
probably only have a very imperfect knowledge of the Yakut spring.

From the middle of April onwards the sun begins to be pretty powerful
in Yakutsk; in May it hardly leaves the horizon for a few hours and is
roasting hot; but as long as the great Lena has not thrown off the
shackles of winter, and as long as the huge masses of unmelted snow are
lying in the taiga,[1] you can see no trace of spring. The snow is not
warmed by the earth, which has been frozen hard to the depth of several
feet, and this thick crust of ice opposes determined resistance to the
lifegiving rays, and only after long, patient labour does the sun
succeed in awakening to new life the secret depths of the taiga and the
queen of Yakut waters, 'Granny Lena', as the Yakut calls the great

[Footnote 1: Primaeval forest.]

In the last days of the month of May, when this battle of vitalizing
warmth against the last remnants of the cruel winter is nearing its
end, the newly arrived European witnesses a scene which is without
parallel anywhere in the west. Every sound resembling a report, however
distant and indistinct, has a wonderful effect upon the people out in
the open; children and the aged, men and women are suddenly rooted to
the spot, turn to the east towards the river, crane their necks and
seem to be listening for something.

If the peculiar sounds cease or turn out to be caused accidentally,
everybody quietly goes home. But if the reports continue, and swell to
such dimensions that the air seems filled with a noise like the firing
of great guns or the rolling of thunder, accompanied by subterranean
rushing like the coming of a great gale, then these silent people
become unusually animated. Joyful shouts of 'The ice is cracking! the
river is breaking! do you hear?' are heard from all sides; eagerly and
noisily the people run in all directions to carry the news into the
farthest cottages. Everybody knocks at the doors he passes, be they his
friends' or a stranger's; and calls out the magic word 'The Lena is
breaking!' These words spread like wildfire in many tongues through
far-off houses, yurtas and Yakut settlements, and whoever is able to
move puts on his furs and runs to the banks of the Lena.

A dense crowd is thronging the banks, watching in fascination one of
the most beautiful natural phenomena in Siberia.

Gigantic blocks of ice, driven down by the powerful waves of the broad
river, are packed to the height of houses - of mountains; they break,
they crash; covered with myriads of small needles of ice, they seem to
be floating in the sun, displaying a marvellous wealth of colour.

But one must have lived here for at least one winter to understand what
it is that drives this crowd of human beings to the river banks. It is
not the magnificent display of nature that attracts them.

In the long struggle against winter these people have exhausted all
their strength; for many months' they have been awaiting the vivifying
warmth with longing and impatience, now they hasten hither to witness
the triumph of the sun over the cruel enemy.

An intense, almost childlike joy is depicted on the yellow faces of the
Yakuts, their broad lips smile good-naturedly and appear broader still,
their little black eyes glow like coals. The whole crowd is swaying as
if intoxicated. 'God be praised! God be praised!' they call to each
other, turn towards the huge icebergs which are now being destroyed by
the friendly element, and shout and rejoice over the defeat of the
merciless enemy, driven, crushed and annihilated by the inexorable

When the ice-drifts on the Lena have come to an end, the earth quickly
thaws, although only to a depth of two feet. But nature makes the most
of the three months of warmth. Within a comparatively short time
everything develops and unfolds.

The great plain of Yakutsk offers a charming spectacle; it is fertile,
and here and there cultivation already begins to show. Birchwoods,
small lakes, brushwood and verdant fields alternate and make the whole
country look like a large park, framed by the silver ribbon of the
Lena. The surrounding gloom of the taiga emphasizes the natural beauty
of the valley. This smiling plain in the midst of the wide expanse
reminds one of an oasis in the desert.

The Yakut is by far the most capable of the Siberian tribes; he values
the gifts of the life-giving sun and enjoys them to the full. When he
escapes from his narrow, stinking winter-yurta he fills his hitherto
inhospitable country with life and movement; his energy is doubled, his
vitality pulsates with greater strength and intensity. When the
'Ysech', the feast of spring, is over, the animated mood of the
population does not abate in the least. The 'strengthening kumis', the
ambrosia of the Yakut gods, does not run dry in the wooden vessels, for
luxuriant grass covers the ground, and cows and mares give abundant

The sight of the lovely plain and the joyful human beings delighting in
the summer had revived me also. This was my first summer in Yakutsk,
and I responded to it with my whole being. Daily I went for walks to
look at the beauty of the surrounding world, daily I took my sun bath.

My walks usually led me to one of the Yakut yurtas; they are at long
distances from each other, lonely and scattered over the whole country.
You find them in whatever direction you may choose.

Cold milk and kumis can be had in all these yurtas. It is true both
have the nasty smell which the stranger in this part of the world calls
'Yakut odour'; but during the long winter when milk other than from
Yakut yurtas was hard to procure, I had got used to this specific
smell, so that now it only produced a mild nausea.

One of the many yurtas had taken my fancy, for it was charmingly
situated close to the woods in a corner of the raised banks of a long
stretch of lake. It belonged to an aged Yakut, well deserving of the
honourable designation 'ohonior', given to all the Yakut elders.

The old man was living there with his equally aged wife and a young
fellow, a distant relation of his. Two cows and a calf, a few mares and
a foal constituted all their wealth.

All the Yakuts are very inquisitive and loquacious. But my friend, the
honourable 'ohonior ', possessed these qualities in an unusually high
degree, and as he was able to speak broken Russian, I often took
occasion to call in for a little talk.

First of all he wished to know who I was, where I came from and what
was my business here. Towards the Russians, whether strangers or
natives of Siberia, the Yakuts are always on their guard and
excessively obsequious. Every Russian, however poorly dressed, is
always the 'tojan', the master. Their behaviour towards the Poles, on
the other hand, is very friendly. No Yakut ever took the information
that I was not a Russian but a 'Bilak' - Polak - with indifference.

'Bilak? Bilak? Excellent brother!' exclaimed even the most reticent
among them. The 'ohonior' and I therefore soon became friends, and when
he learned that in addition I was versed in the art of writing and
might be employed as secretary to the community and draw up petitions
to the 'great master' - the 'gubernator' - my value was immensely
increased, and this respect saved me from too great an intimacy. Owing
to this consideration I was always offered the best milk and kumis, and
when the old woman handed me a jug she carefully wiped it with her
fingers first, or removed every trace of dirt with her tongue.

One day when I called in passing to drink my kumis, I found the
'ohonior' unusually excited; he was not only talkative, but also in
very great spirits. His tongue was a little heavy, although he showed
no sign of old age. It turned out that my honourable host had just
returned from the town, where he had indulged in vodka to warm his
feeble frame.

'The Bilaks are good, are all good,' he stammered, while he crammed his
little pipe with tobacco, 'every Bilak is a clerk, or at least a
doctor, or even a smith, as good as a Yakut one. You are a good man
too, and you must be a good clerk; we all love the Bilaks, a Sacha[1]
never forgets that the Bilak is his brother. But will you believe it,
brother, it is not long since this is so? I myself was afraid of the
Bilaks as of evil spirits until about fifteen years ago, and yet I am
so old that the calves have grazed off the meadows seventy times before
my eyes. When I saw a Bilak, I would run like a hare wherever my feet
would carry me - into the wood or into the bushes, never mind where, so
long as I could escape from him. And not only I but everybody dreaded
the Bilaks, for, you see, people told each other dreadful things about
them, that they had horns and slew everybody, and so on.'

[Footnote 1: The name by which the Yakuts call themselves.]

I ascertained that these fairy-tales had had their origin in the town,
and reproached the old man for his credulity, but he bridled up at

'Goodness gracious! do you think we believed all that on hearsay? I
don't know about other people, but I and all my neighbours believed it
because our forefathers knew for certain that every Bilak was terrible
and dangerous.'

The old man refreshed himself from the jug and continued:

'Do you see, it was like this. My father was not yet born, my
grandfather was a little fellow for whom they were still collecting the
"Kalym"[1] when there came to this neighbourhood a Bilak with eyes of
ice,[2] a long beard and long moustaches; he settled here, not in the
valley but up on yonder mountainside in the taiga. That was not taiga,
as you see it now, but thick and wild, untouched by any axe. There the
Bilak found an empty yurta and settled in it.'

[Footnote 1: The price for the future wife which is paid in cattle and
horses; it is collected early in the boy's life.]

[Footnote 2: The black-eyed Yakuts speak thus of the blue-eyed races.]

'But he had no sooner gone to live there than the taiga became
impassable at a distance of ten versts round the cottage. The Bilak ran
about with his gun in his hand, and when he caught sight of anyone he
covered him with his gun, and unless the man ran away he would pop at
him - but not for fun, he didn't mind whom he shot, even if it were a
Cossack. What he lived on? The gods of the taiga know! Nobody else did.
Every living thing shunned him like the plague. Those who caught sight
of him in the forest when he ran about like a devil said that at first
he wore clothes such as the Russian gentlemen wear who know how to
write, but later on he was dressed in skins which he must have tanned
himself. People said he got to look more and more terrible and wild.
His beard grew down to his waist, his face got paler and paler and his
eyes burnt like flames. Some years passed. Then one winter, at the time
of the worst frosts, when a murderous "chijus" broke,[1] he was not
seen for several days. As a rule he had been observed from a distance,
so the people gave notice in the town that someone should come and
ascertain what had happened to him.

[Footnote 1: A column of frozen air, moving southwards. After a chijus,
corpses of frozen people are generally found.]

'They came and closed in upon the cottage carefully. There was the
Bilak on the bed in his furs, all covered with snow, and in his hand he
held a cross. The Bilak was dead; perhaps hunger had killed him,
perhaps the frost, or maybe the devil had taken him. Now tell me, was
there no reason for us to be afraid of the Bilaks? Here was only a
single one who drove all the neighbourhood to flight, and now all of a
sudden a great many of you arrived? He! he! he! You know how to write,
brother, but you are yet very young! So you thought people had no good
reasons for their fears? Well, you see, you were mistaken. A Sacha is
cleverer than he looks!'

This legend of a Pole who could not bear to look upon human beings - a
legend I repeatedly heard again later - made a deep impression upon me.
These woods, these fields where I was walking now had perhaps been
haunted by the unfortunate man, driven mad and wild with excess of

Had his troubles been beyond endurance or had he been unable to bear
the sight of human wickedness and human misery? Or was it the
separation from his home, from those dear to him, that had broken him?

Dominated altogether by these thoughts, I returned to the town without
paying heed to anything around me. I was walking fast, almost at a run,
when a long-drawn call coming from somewhere close by struck upon my

'Kallarra! Kallarra!'

At first I neither understood the call nor whence it came, but on
frequent repetition it dawned upon me that it proceeded from the bushes
at a little distance in front of me, and that it was meant to be the
Yakut call 'Come here, come here, brother!' I even divined, as I came
nearer, what manner of man it was that was calling. No Yakut, no
Russian, be he a native or a settler, could have mispronounced this
Yakut word so badly; it should have been 'Kelere!'

Only my countrymen, the Masurs, could do such violence to the
beautiful, sonorous Yakut language. During my long sojourn in Yakutsk I
have never met a Masurian peasant who pronounced this word otherwise
than 'Kallarra'.

Indeed, there he was, behind the bushes beyond a bridge spanning the
marsh or dried-up arm of the Lena - a man in the ordinary clothes of

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 15 17 18 19 20 21 22

Online LibraryVariousSelected Polish Tales → online text (page 15 of 22)