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deported criminals; he agitated his arms violently, and continually
repeated his call 'Kallarra'!

This was addressed to a Yakut who became visible on the outskirts of
the brushwood, but it was in vain, for the wary Yakut had no intention
of drawing nearer. The caller must have realized this, for when he
arrived at the bridge he called once more 'Kalarè! you dog!' Then he
ceased and only swore to himself: 'May you burst, may you swell, you
son of a dog!'

When he noticed me, he stood still. I came up to him and greeted him in
Polish, 'Praised be Jesus Christ!'

The peasant could not get over his amazement.

'Oh Jesus! where do you come from, sir?' he cried.

We soon made friends. He lived somewhere in an uluse,[1] and had gone
into the town to hire himself out for work in the gold mines; he had
secured work and was to start at once, driving a herd of cattle to his
new abode. He was grazing them when I met him, and as some of them had
gone astray, and he was unable to drive them all across the bridge
singlehanded, he was waiting for someone to come along and help him. I
gladly lent him a hand, and when the herd had been got across the
bridge and was quietly going along, we began to talk. I asked him with
whom he was lodging.

[Footnote 1: A settlement consisting of several yurtas.]

'With Kowalski,' he said.

I knew all the Poles in Yakutsk, but I had never heard of Kowalski.

'Well, I mean Kowalski the carpenter.'

Still I did not know whom he meant.

'Who are his friends? whom does he go to see?' I inquired.

'He is peculiar. They all know him, but he does not go to see them.'

'How do you mean: he does not go to see them?'

'How should he go to see them? He has got clump feet, he has lost his
toes with frostbite. When the wounds are closed he can just manage, but
when they are open he cannot even move about in his room.'

'How does he manage to live?'

'He does a little carpentering; he has a beautiful workshop and all
sorts of tools, but I tell you when he can't stand on his feet he can't
do carpentering. Then he is glad when people come and give him orders
for brushes - he can make beautiful brushes as well - for sweeping rooms
or for brushing clothes. But the rooms here are not swept much, and
people rarely brush their clothes either. Now he is ill again.'

'Where does he come from? How long has he been here?'

'He has been here a long time, there were only a few like us when he
came. But where he comes from, who he is - I see you don't know
Kowalski, or else you wouldn't ask. For you see, when I ask him, or one
of the gentlemen, or even the priest, who comes from Irkutsk, he only
answers: "Brother, God knows very well who I am and where I come from,
but it serves no purpose and is quite unnecessary that you should know
it too!" There you are! That's like him. So nobody asks him.'

I inquired very particularly all the same where Kowalski lived. In my
imagination the 'Bilak' of the legend who fled from men and this lonely
carpenter were blended into one personality, I could not say why. I
felt that there must be a mysterious connexion as between all things
repeating themselves in the circle of time. Perhaps the great sorrow
which - I imagined - had died at the death of the Bilak was still living
on quite close to me, in a different shape, but just as great, no less
unbearable and fateful to him in whom it now dwelt.

Since that day I had often guided my steps in the direction of
Kowalski's yurta. No fresh shavings were added to the old ones lying
about near the door and the little windows. They grew drier and blacker
every day; perhaps the man who had thrown them there.... I had not the
courage to enter. I kept on waiting for another day when perhaps fresh
shavings would be added, but none appeared and no noises of work were

At last I made up my mind not to put it off any longer. I left my home
with this decision and had already reached a corner of his yurta, when
I heard a trembling, weak but pleasant voice singing.

I sat down on the bench in front of the yurta, and I could distinctly
hear every word of a sentimental, gently melancholy little ditty which
had once been very popular in Poland:

'When the fields are fresh and green.
And the spring revives the world.'

But after the third verse the singing suddenly ceased and a voice
called out gloomily:

'Doggy, go and bark at the Almighty!'

At first I did not know what this peculiar command meant, but after a
short pause I heard the thin bark of a dog, and as the gate of the
enclosure was open I drew nearer and saw in the wide open door of the
yurta a small black dog, tiny and light, repeatedly raising itself on
its hindlegs and barking up at the blue sky while it jumped and turned

Of course I went away and put off my visit to a more suitable occasion.

At last I saw him. He was of middle stature, quite greyheaded, and he
looked very neglected. The ashen complexion common to all exiles
distinguished him in a high degree, so that it gave me pain to look
into his face with the black shadows.

If he had not been talking, and moving about, it would have been hard
to guess that one was looking at a living being. And yet, glances like
lightning would sometimes dart from the large eyes surrounded by broad,
dark circles, and they showed that death had not yet numbed the inner
life of this moving corpse, but that he was still capable of emotion.

As long as he was sitting I could bear the sight of his suffering face,
but when he got up I had to turn away my eyes, for then his clump-feet
seemed to cause him the greatest agony.

He spoke Polish correctly and with a pure accent. He carefully avoided
any direct or indirect allusion to his past, and shrank equally from
information about his native country. He talked exclusively about the
present, principally about his dog, with whom he held long
conversations. Only once in the course of the few weeks during which I
visited him did he get animated: that was when I mentioned Plotsk; his
eyes shone as with a hidden fire while he asked: 'Do you know that

I answered that I had lived there for a year, and he said, half to

'I suppose it is all quite changed, so many years have passed. You
probably were not born at the time when I came to Siberia. In what part
of the province did you stay?'

'Not far from Raciaz.'

He opened his mouth, but he felt he had said too much, or that I was
listening with curiosity; enough - he only uttered a long-drawn 'Oh...'
and was silent again.

This was the only allusion Kowalski ever made to his past. I felt
inclined to draw him out, but he knew how to parry these attempts in a
delicate way by calling his dog and saying to him while he caressed
him: 'Go, bark at the Almighty!' And the obedient creature would
continue for a long time to bark at the sky.

As soon as Kowalski gave this order, it was a sure sign that he would
not open his mouth except for conversation about his dog, of which he
never tired.

Although this dog was quite ordinary, he was in several ways
distinguished from his Yakut brothers. For one thing he had no name and
was simply addressed as 'Doggy', though he was his master's pet and was
attached to the house and enclosure.

'Why didn't you give your dog a name?' I asked casually.

'What's the good of a name? If people had not invented so many names
and called each other simply "Man", they would perhaps remember better
that we are all men together.'

So the dog remained nameless. He was of a graceful and delicate build
and fast, quite unlike the heavier, thickset, thick-coated native dogs;
his hair was short, soft, and silky. His appearance had condemned him
to an isolated and lonely life. Attempts at participation in the canine
social life had failed deplorably; he had returned from these
expeditions lame and bleeding all over, and after some vain repetitions
he had given up the hope of satisfying his social instincts and did not
leave the enclosure any more. He was surprisingly sedate for his
delicate organism and thin, mobile little frame, but this was not the
calm sedateness of the strong, shaggy Yakut dogs, against whom he
obviously harboured a certain hatred and bitterness, because these big,
powerful creatures would not recognize the rights of the weak. Except
for his master, he showed no affection for anyone and accepted no
favours - perhaps he had no belief in them, and only responded to a
caress with a low growl.

Some weeks passed and Kowalski was no better, on the contrary he seemed
to get worse with every day, and we were all convinced that this
illness was his last. God knows whether he was equally convinced, but
he certainly had a foreboding of his death, for he hardly ever talked
now. For a few days longer he obstinately struggled against the
weakness which was overpowering him, and walked about his yurta, even
tinkered at some brushes which he had begun; at last he gave it up and
took to his bed. One morning, when I had just sat down to my breakfast,
the locksmith Wladyslaw Piotrowski, Kowalski's nearest friend, came to
my window and asked me to accompany him to our patient.

'It might ease his last hour when he sees that he is not quite
forsaken,' said the kind man. 'Perhaps you would like to take a book
with you,' he added. I took the New Testament and went with him.

'Is he so very bad?' I asked on the way.

'I should think so; he looks quite black and says himself that he is
sure he will die to-day.'

We soon arrived at Kowalski's yurta. There was no trace of the usual
sick-room smell of medicines, for Kowalski believed neither in doctors
nor in medicines. But an air of sadness and desolation pervaded the
room. The little dog lay curled up under the bed, from which,
notwithstanding the open window, an unpleasant smell reminded one that
the sick man was no longer able to get up.

He looked so unlike a living being that we concluded, on entering and
seeing him lying there with his eyes closed, that he was dead. The
locksmith went up to the bed, put his hand under the bedclothes and
touched his feet; they were cold. But Kowalski called out loudly and
emphatically as I had never heard him before:

'I am alive! I am glad that you have come, for I should like to speak
to you of death.'

The haste and anxiety with which these words were uttered bore out our
premonition that we had only just come in time; we looked at each
other; Kowalski caught this look and understood it.

'I know,' he said, 'that I shall die soon, it would be vain to hide
from myself what I can see quite clearly. That is why I want to speak
to you. I was afraid no one would come... I was afraid no one would
hear what I have got to say and that he whom you call the Merciful God
would take away my power of speech... I thank you for your thought. May
you not be lonely either when your hour of death calls you from an
unhappy life.'

Kowalski stopped; only his brow, which was alternately contracted and
smoothed, showed that the dying man was trying with his last remnant of
strength to collect his thoughts and to retain the last spark of life.

It was early morning, and the sun threw two great sheaves of golden
rays through the window on to the wall where the bed stood. From the
wide expanse of fields and the archipelago of islands in the river,
redolent with luxurious vegetation, life and the echoes of life and
movement emanated like a melodious song, a great hymn of thanksgiving
in the bright sunshine; it penetrated to the bed of the dying man and
formed an indescribable contrast to what was passing inside the yurta.

This brightness, this noise as of a great song of life, was like an
irony, like scorn levelled at the deathbed of this living corpse....

Meanwhile Kowalski had begun to speak.

'Long ago,' he said - 'it must be about forty years - I was exiled to the
steppes of Orenburg. I was young and strong, I trusted in God and had
confidence in men and in myself. I may have been right or I may have
been wrong, but I thought it was my duty not to leave my energy to the
chance of fate, but to try and find a wider field of activity than was
open to me in this country. Homesickness too urged me on, and after two
years I escaped....

'I was punished by being sent to Tomsk, but this did not daunt me. I
started my life afresh with renewed energy, lived on bread and water
until I had saved enough for what I needed, and escaped again....

'For this second flight I was punished as an obstinate backslider, and
it took several years before I could make another attempt, but that
time I got farther away than before. It was an unusually hard winter, I
had no money and only insufficient clothing. My feet were frostbitten,
and I lost my toes. That was a hard blow, especially as they sent me
beyond the Yenessi this time.

'My situation was difficult; the country was dreary and desolate, it
was hard to earn a living. But although I had no toes I managed to
learn a trade or two, and one or the other used to bring me in a little
income, small but sure.

'This time I waited six years, then, without regard for the state of my
feet, I started off again....

'You see, I had no more confidence in my strength. I was ill and
broken, it was not the same goal as before that drew me westwards.... I
wanted to die there... to die there....

'I dreamt of dying on my mother's grave as of a great happiness.

'My life had been such that no one except my mother had ever been good
to me; I had had no sweetheart, no wife, no children....

'And now, feeling weak and forsaken, I longed for the grave of this one
being who had loved me.

'In sleepless nights I felt her hand touching my head, her kiss and the
hot tears with which she took her last leave of me, conscious perhaps
that our separation would be eternal. I do not know even now whether
the longing for my mother or for my native land was the stronger. But
it was a hard pilgrimage this time. I could not walk fast because of
the wounds on my feet which kept breaking open. I often had to hide for
days in the woods like a wild animal.

'Vultures and crows[1] - ill omens of the end - circled over my head,
scenting their prey. Worn out with hunger I broke down from time to
time, and...fool that I was, I always prayed. I implored the Almighty
God, the merciful God, the just God, the God of the poor, the God of
the forsaken:

[Footnote 1: Siberian fugitives look upon them with superstition.]

'"Help me, have mercy on me! Gracious Father! send me death, I ask for
no other mercy than death! I will give it to myself, but only

'Two years passed before I reached the province of Perm. I had never
before got so far. My heart began to beat joyously, in my head there
was only one thought: "I shall see my beloved native soil, and I shall
die at my beloved mother's grave." When I left the Ural behind me I
definitely believed in my salvation, I threw myself down upon the
ground, and for a long, long time I lay there, sobbing and thanking God
for His grace and His mercy. But He, the Merciful, was only preparing
His last blow, and that same day.... Then they took me as far as

'Why did I live on so long in this misery?

'Why did I wait here for such an end as this?

'Because I wanted to see what God intended to do to me. 'Now see what
He has made of a human being who trusted Him like a child, who has
never known what happiness in this world meant, nor demanded it, who
has never received love from anyone but his mother and, although maimed
and crippled, has worked hard until the end, never stretched out his
hands for alms, never stolen or coveted his neighbours' possessions,
who has ever given away the half of what he had... see what He has made
of me!...

'That is why I hate Him, no longer trust in Him....I don't believe in
His Saints or His Judgment or His Justice; hear me, brothers, I call
you to witness in the hour of my death, so that you should know it and
can testify to it before Him when you die.'

He raised himself with an effort, stretched out his hands towards the
sun and called with a loud voice:

'I, a dying worm, truly acknowledge Thee to be the God of the satiated,
the God of the wicked, the God of the impure, and that Thou hast ruined
me, a guiltless man!...'

The sun had risen higher and was now gilding the bed of pain of this
living skeleton - terrible to behold in his loose skin.

When he sank back exhausted, we were shocked, for we thought that he
would give up the ghost before we had time to comfort him and ease his
last hour.

'Let us pray for him,' whispered the locksmith. We knelt down; with
trembling hands I pulled out the book; it opened of itself where a
bookmarker had been placed at the fifteenth chapter of the Gospel of
St. John.

Raising my voice I began to read:

'I am the true Vine and My Father is the Husbandman.'

The dying man's chest heaved violently, his eyes were closed. He was
now quite covered by the golden rays; it seemed as if the sun meant to
reward him at the last moment for his hard life, so closely did the
rays hug him, warming his stiff limbs, calming him, kissing him as a
mother kisses and caresses her drowsy child and wraps it round with her
own warmth.

Kowalski was still alive.

I continued to read the words of Christ, so full of power and faith and
deep, blessed hope:

'If the world hate you, ye know that it hated Me before it hated

The inspiring words of the Comforter of sufferers and the caress of the
vivifying light eased the dying man's pain. He opened his eyes and two
great tears welled forth - the last tears which this man had to spare.

The rays of the sun kissed the tears on his ashen countenance and made
them shine with divine light; it seemed as if they endeavoured to
present to their Creator in pure colours the burning fire which had
consumed this man and was concentrated in his tears.

I read on:

'Verily, verily, I say unto you, that ye shall weep and lament, but the
world shall rejoice: and ye shall be sorrowful, but your sorrow shall
be turned into joy...'

The dying man tried to lift his hands, they fell back powerless, but he
murmured in a low, distinct voice: 'Lord, by Thy pain forgive me!'

I could not read further. In silence we knelt, and the dog stood
between us, puzzled and looking at his master. Once more the dying
man's eyes turned towards us, he opened his mouth, and we heard him say
yet more slowly and weakly: 'Doggy, do not bark at the Almighty.'

The faithful creature threw himself whining upon his master's limp
hand, from which the life had already fled.

Kowalski's eyes closed, a short, dull rattle came from his throat, his
chest sank back, he stretched himself a little: the life of suffering
was ended.

When we recovered ourselves we heard the violent barking of the dog,
who, without understanding his master's last wish, was faithfully
carrying out the sole duty of his life. He barked and growled
incessantly, and came back from time to time to the bed and his
master's limply hanging hand in expectation of the usual caress.

But his master lay immovable, the cold hand hung stiffly; exhausted and
hoarse the dog ran out again into the enclosure.

We left; but at a long distance from the yurta we could still hear the
barking of the senseless creature.




[Footnote 1: The accent on the Z softens the sound approximately to
that of the French g in _gele_.]

I had spent an hour at the railway station, waiting for the train to
come in. I had stared indifferently at several ladies in turn who were
yawning in the corners of the waiting-room. Then I had tried the effect
of making eyes at a fair-haired young girl with a small white nose,
rosy cheeks, and eyes like forget-me-nots; she had stuck out her tongue
(red as a field-poppy) at me, and I was now at a loss to know what to
do next to kill time.

Fortunately for me two young students entered the waiting-room. They
looked dirty from head to foot, mud-bespattered, untidy, and exhausted
with travelling. One of them, a fair boy with a charming profile,
seemed absent-minded or depressed. He sat down in a corner, took off
his cap, and hid his face in his hands. His companion bought his ticket
for him, sat down beside him, and grasped his hand from time to time.

'Why should you despair? All may yet be well. Listen, Anton.'

'No, it's no good, he is dying, I know it.... I know... perhaps he is
dead already.'

'Don't believe it! Has your father ever had this kind of attack

'He has; he has suffered from his heart for three years. He used to
drink at times. Think of it, there are eight of us, some are young
children, and my mother is delicate. In another six months his pension
would have been due. Terribly hard luck!'

'You are meeting trouble half-way, Anton.'

The bell sounded, and the waiting-room became a scene of confusion.
People seized their luggage and trampled on each other's toes; the
porter who stood at the entrance-door was stormed with questions. There
was bustle and noise everywhere. I entered the third-class carriage in
which the fair-haired student was sitting. His friend had put him into
it, settling him in the corner-seat beside the window, as if he were an
invalid, and urging him to take comfort. It did not come easy to him,
the words seemed to stick in his throat. The fair-haired boy's face
twitched convulsively, and his eyelids closed over his moist eyes.

'Anton, my dear fellow,' the other said, 'well, you understand what I
mean; God knows. You may be sure... confound it all!'

The second bell sounded, and then the third. The sympathizing friend
stepped out of the carriage, and, as the train started, he waved an odd
kind of farewell greeting, as if he were threatening him with his

In the carriage were a number of poor people, Jews, women with
enormously wide cloaks, who had elbowed their way to their seats, and
sat chattering or smoking.

The student stood up and looked out of the window without seeing. Lines
of sparks like living fire passed by the grimy window-pane, and balls
of vapour and smoke, resembling large tufts of wool, were dashed to
pieces and hurried to the ground by the wind. The smoke curled round
the small shrubs growing close to the ground, moistened by the rain in
the valley. The dusk of the autumn day spread a dim light over the
landscape, and produced an effect of indescribable melancholy. Poor
boy! Poor boy!

The loneliness of boundless sorrow was expressed in his weary look as
he gazed out of the window. I knew that the pivot on which all his
emotions turned was the anxiety of uncertainty, and that beyond the
bounds of conscious thought an unknown loom was weaving for him a
shadowy thread of hope. He saw, he heard nothing, while his vacant eyes
followed the balls of smoke. As the train travelled along, I knew that
he was miserable, tired out, that he would have liked to cry quietly.
The thread of hope wound itself round his heart: Who could tell?
perhaps his father was recovering, perhaps all would be well?

Suddenly (I knew it would come), the blood rushed from his face, his
lips went pale and tightened; he was gazing into the far distance with
wide-open eyes. It was as if a threatening hand, piercing the grief,
loneliness and dread that weighed on him, was pointing at him, as if
the wind were rousing him with the cry: 'Beware!' His thread of hope
was strained to breaking-point, and the naked truth, which he had not
quite faced till that minute, struck him through the heart like a

Had I approached him at that instant, and told him I was an omniscient
spirit and knew his village well, and that his father was not lying
dead, he would have fallen at my feet and believed, and I should have
done him an infinite kindness.

But I did not speak to him, and I did not take his hand. All I wished
to do was merely to watch him with the interest and insatiable
curiosity which the human heart ever arouses in me.

'Let my fate go whither it listeth.' (_Oedipus Tyrannus_.)

In the darkest corner of the ward, in the bed marked number
twenty-four, a farm labourer of about thirty years of age had been
lying for several months. A black wooden tablet, bearing the words
'Caries tuberculosa', hung at the head of the bed, and shook at each
movement of the patient. The poor fellow's leg had had to be amputated
above the knee, the result of a tubercular decay of the bone. He was a
peasant, a potato-grower, and his forefathers had grown potatoes before

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Online LibraryVariousSelected Polish Tales → online text (page 16 of 22)