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him. He was now on his own, after having been in two situations; had
been married for three years and had a baby son with a tuft of flaxen
hair. Then suddenly, from no cause that he could tell, his knee had
pained him, and small ulcers had formed. He had afforded himself a
carriage to the town, and there he had been handed over to the hospital
at the expense of the parish.

He remembered distinctly how on that autumn afternoon he had driven in
the splendid, cushioned carriage with his young wife, how they had both
wept with fright and grief, and when they had finished crying had eaten
hard-boiled eggs: but what had happened after that had all become
blurred - indescribably misty. Yet only partially so.

Of the days in the hospital with their routine and monotony, creating
an incomprehensible break in his life, his memory retained nothing; but
the unchanging grief, weighing like a slab of stone on a grave, was
ever present in his soul with inexorable and brutal force during these
many months. He only half recalled the strange wonders that had been
worked on him: bathing, feeding, probing into the wound, and later on
the operation. He had been carried into a room full of gentlemen
wearing aprons spotted with blood; he was conscious also of the
mysterious, intrepid courage which, like a merciful hand, had supported
him from that hour.

After having gazed at the awe-inspiring phenomena which surrounded him
in the semicircle of the hospital theatre, he had slept during the
operation. His simple heart had not worked out the lesson which sleep,
the greatest mistress on earth, teaches. After the operation everything
had been veiled by mortal lassitude. This had continued, but in the
afternoon and at night they had mixed something heavy, like a stone
ball, into his drinking-cup, and waves of warmth had flowed to the toes
of his healthy foot from the cup. Thoughts chased one another swiftly,
like tiny quicksilver balls through some corner of his brain, and while
he lay bathed in perspiration, and his eyelids closed of their own
accord, not in sleep but in unconsciousness, he had been pursued by
strange, half-waking visions.

Everything real seemed to disappear, only dimly lighted, vacant space
remained, pervaded by the smell of chloroform. He seemed to be in the
interior of a huge cone, stretching along the ground like a tunnel. Far
away in the distance, where it narrowed towards the opening, there was
a sparkling, white spot; if he could get there, he might escape. He
seemed to be travelling day and night towards that chink along unending
spiral lines running within the surface of the tunnel; he travelled
under compulsion and with great effort, slowly, like a snail, although
within him something leapt up like a rabbit caught in a snare, or as if
wings were fluttering in his soul. He knew what was beyond that chink.
Only a few steps would lead him to the ridge under the wood... to his
own four strips of potato-field! And whenever he roused himself
mechanically from his apathy he had a vision of the potato-harvest. The
transparent autumn-haze in the fields was bringing objects that were
far off into relief, and making them appear perfectly distinct. He saw
himself together with his young wife, digging beautiful potatoes, large
as their fists.

On the hillock, amid the stubble, the herdsmen were assembled in
groups, their wallets slung round them; they were crouching on their
heels, had collected dry juniper and lighted a fire; with bits of
sticks they were scraping out the baked potatoes from the ashes. The
rising smoke scented the air fragrantly with juniper.

At times, when he was better and more himself, when the fever tormented
him less, he sank into the state of timidity and apprehension known
only to those harassed almost beyond human endurance and to the dying.
Fear oppressed him till his whole being shrank into something less than
the smallest grain; he was hurled by fearful sounds and overawing
obsessions into a bottomless abyss.

At last the wound on his foot began to heal, and the fever to abate.
His mind returned from that other world to the familiar one, and to
reflecting on what was taking place before his eyes. But the nature of
these reflections had changed. Formerly he had felt self-pity arising
from terror; now it was the wild hatred of the wounded man, his
overpowering desire for revenge; his rage turned as fiercely even upon
the unfortunate ones lying beside him as upon those who had maimed him.
But another idea had taken even more powerfully possession of his mind;
his thoughts darted forward like a pack of hounds on the trail, in
frantic pursuit of the power which had thus passed sentence on him.

This condition of lonely self-torment lasted a long while, and
increased his exasperation.

And then, one day, he noticed that his healthy foot was growing stiff
and the ankle swelling. When the head-surgeon came on his daily rounds,
the patient confided his fear to him. The doctor examined the emaciated
limb, unobserved lanced the abscess, perceived that the probe reached
to the bone, rubbed his hands together and looked into the peasant's
face with a sad, doubtful look.

'This is a bad job, my good fellow. It may mean the other foot; was
that what you were thinking of? And you are a bad subject. But we will
do it for you here; you will be better off than in your cottage, we
will give you plenty to eat.' And he passed on, accompanied by his
assistant. At the door he turned back, bent over the sick man, and
furtively, so that no one should see, passed his hand kindly over his

The peasant's mind became a blank; it was as if someone had unawares
dealt him a blow in the dark with a club. He closed his eyes and lay
still for a long time... until an unknown feeling of calm came over

There is an enchanted, hidden spot in the human soul, fastened with
seven locks, which no one and nothing but that picklock, bitter
adversity, can open.

Through the lips of the self-blinded Oedipus, Sophocles makes mention
of this secret place. Within it are hidden marvellous joy, sweet
necessity, the highest wisdom.

As the poor fellow lay silently on his bed, the special conception that
arose in his mind was that of Christ walking on the waves of the raging
sea, quelling the storm.

Henceforward through long nights and wretched days he was looking at
everything from an immeasurable distance, from a safe place, where all
was calm and wholly well, whence everything seemed small, slightly
ludicrous and foolish, and yet lovable.

'And may the Lord Jesus...may He give His peace to all people,' he
whispered to himself. 'Never mind, this will do as well for me!'




[Footnote 1: The stroke softens the l approximately to the sound of w.]

[The place is a solitary inn in Russian Poland, near the Prussian
frontier, kept by a Jew named Herszlik, part of whose occupation is to
smuggle emigrants for America by night across the border. Besides
emigrants and Herszlik are present an old beggar man and his wife or
'doxy', a couple of peasants drinking together, and Jan (or, in
diminutive form, Jasiek), a youth who has just escaped from a prison to
which he had been sentenced for an attack, under great provocation, on
a steward, and now creeps into the inn out of the surrounding forest.]

It was a night of March, a night of rain, cold, and tempest.

The forest, cramped, stiff, soaked to its marrow, and agitated now and
then by an icy shiver, threw out its boughs in a sort of feverish panic
as if to shake the water from them, and roared the wild note of a
creature in torture. At times a damp snow stilled all to helpless
silence, broken by a passing groan or the cry of some frozen bird or
rattle of some body falling on the boughs. Then once more the wind
flung itself with fury on the woods, dug into their depths with its
teeth, tore off boughs, and with a roar of triumph whistled along the
glades and swept the forest as with a besom; or from out of the depths
of space huge mud-coloured clouds, like piles of rotting hay, strangled
the trees in their embrace, or dissolved in a cold unceasing drizzle
that might have penetrated a stone. The roads were deserted, flooded
with a mixture of mud and foul snow; the villages seemed dead, the
fields shrivelled, the rivers ice-fettered; man and life were to be
seen nowhere; night ruled alone.

Only in the single inn of Przylecki shone a small light; it stood in
the middle of the forest at cross roads; a few cottages were visible on
the side of a hill: the rest was the mighty forest.

Jasiek Winciorek pushed forward cautiously from the wood to the road,
and at sight of the blinking light walked stealthily to the window,
peeped in, then in timid perplexity drew back a few steps till a fresh
blast of wind froze him so that the poor boy turned back once more,
crossed himself, and entered.

The inn was large, with a floor of clay, and a black ceiling resting on
walls out of the perpendicular; these had lost their whitewash, and
were pierced by two small windows half-choked up with straw. Directly
opposite the latter, behind a wooden railing, stood a cask resting on
other barrels, above which smoked the red glare of a naphtha lamp. Over
the room lay a dense darkness, only lightened now and then with flashes
from an expiring fire in a large old-world fire-place, before which sat
a pair of beggars. In a corner might be seen a number of persons
huddled together whispering mysteriously. By the cask were two
peasants, one clasping a bottle, the other holding out a glass; they
often drank healths to one another and nodded sleepily. A fat red
damsel was snoring behind the railing. Over all there spread a smell
compounded of whisky, sodden clay, and soaked rags.

At times such a stillness fell on the room that one could hear the
sounds of the forest, the tinkle of the rain on the window-panes, the
crackling of the pine boughs in the fireplace. And then a low door
behind the railing opened with a creak, and there appeared the old grey
head of a Jew, dressed in his praying gown, and singing in a low voice,
while behind him shone a room lighted with small candles, from which
issued Sabbath smells and a quiet monotonous dreary sound of singing.
Jasiek drank a few glasses one after the other, gnawed half-consciously
some mouldy rolls as tough as leather, which he seasoned with a
herring, and looked now at the door, now at the window, or listened to
the murmur of the voices.

'Marry, no, curse it, I won't marry!' suddenly shouted one of the two
peasants, knocking his bottle on the cask and spitting as far as the
shoulder of the beggar man at the fire.

'But you must,' whispered the other, 'or repay the money.'

'God! that's nothing! Jevka!' - this to the girl - 'half a pint of
whisky! I pay!'

'Money is a big thing, though a woman is a bigger.'

'No, curse it, I won't marry! I'll sell myself, borrow, pay back the
money, rather than marry that harridan.'

'Just take a drop to my health, Antek: I have something to say to you.'

'You won't get round me. I have said no, and that is no. Why, if I
must, I will run away to Brazil or the end of the world with those folk

'Silly! just take a drop to my health, Antek: I have something to say
to you.'

They drank healths to one another several times, then began kissing,
then fell silent, for a child was crying in a corner, and a movement
began among the quiet timid crowd.

A tall dried-up peasant appeared out of the darkness and walked out of
the inn.

Jasiek moved up to the fire, for the cold was in his bones, and putting
his herring on a stick began to toast it over the coals. 'Move up a
bit,' he whispered to the beggar man, who had his feet on his wallet,
and though quite blind, was drying at the fire the soaked strips he
wore round his legs, and talking endlessly in a low voice to the woman
by him; she was cooking something and arranging boughs under a tripod
on which stood a pot.

Jasiek got warmer, and steam as from a bucket of boiling water went up
from his long coat.

'You are badly soaked,' whispered the beggar, sniffing.

'I am,' said Jasiek in a whisper, shivering. The door creaked, but it
was only the thin peasant returning.

'Who is that?' whispered Jasiek, tapping the beggar on the arm.

'Those? I don't know him; but those are silly fools going to Brazil.'
He spat.

Jasiek said not a word, but went on drying himself and moving his eyes
about the room, where the people, apparently grown uneasy, now talked
with increasing loudness, now fell suddenly silent, while every moment
one of them went out of the inn, and returned immediately.

From the inner room the monotonous chant still reached them. A hungry
dog crept out from nowhere to the fire and began to growl at the
beggars, but getting a blow from a stick he howled with pain, settled
himself in the middle of the room, and with a piteous look gazed at the
steam rising from the pot.

Jasiek was getting warmer; he had eaten his herring and rolls, but
still felt more sharply than ever that he wanted something. He minutely
searched his pockets, but not finding even a farthing there, doubled
himself together and gazed idly at the pot and the beams of the fire.

'You want to eat - eh?' asked the beggar woman presently.

'I have... a small rumbling in my belly.'

'Who is it?' the beggar man softly inquired of the woman.

'Don't be afraid,' she growled with malice: 'he won't give you a
threepenny bit, not so much as a farthing.'

'A farmer?'

'Yes, a farmer, like you: one who goes about the world' - and she took
the pot off the tripod.

'And there are good people in the world - and wild beasts - and pigs out
of sties.... Hey?' said the beggar man, poking Jasiek with his stick.

'Yes, yes,' answered the boy, not knowing what he said.

'You have something on your mind, I see,' whispered the beggar.

'I have.'

'The Lord Jesus always said: "If you are hungry, eat; if you are
thirsty, drink; but if you are in trouble, don't chatter."'

'Eat a little,' the woman begged the boy; 'it is beggars' food, but it
will do you good,' and she poured out a liberal portion on a plate.
From the bag she drew out a piece of brown bread and put it in the soup
unnoticed; then as he moved up to eat and she saw his worn grey face,
mere skin and bone, pity so moved her that she took out a piece of
sausage and laid it on the bread.

Jasiek could not resist but ate greedily, from time to time throwing a
bone to the dog, who had crept up with entreating eyes.

The beggar man listened a long time; then, when the woman put the pot
into his hands, he raised his spoon and said solemnly:

'Eat, man. The Lord Jesus said, give a beggar a farthing and another
shall repay thee ten. God be with you!'

They ate in silence, till in an interval the beggar rubbed his mouth
with his cuff and said:

'Three things are needful for food to do you good - spirit, salt, bread.
Give us spirit, woman!'

All three drank together and then went on eating.

Jasiek had almost forgotten his danger and threw no more timid looks
around. He just ate, sated himself with warmth, sated slowly the
four-days' hunger that gnawed him, and felt peaceful in the quietness.

The two peasants had left the cask, but the crowd in the corner on
benches or with their bags under their heads on the wet floor were
still quietly dreaming; and still came, but in ever sleepier tones, the
sound of singing from the inner room. And the rain was still falling
and penetrating the roof in some places; it dripped from the ceiling
and formed shining sticky circles of mud on the clay floor. And still
at times the wind shook the inn or howled in the fire-place, scattered
the burning boughs and drove smoke into the room.

'There is something for you too, vagabond!' whispered the woman, giving
the rest of the food to the dog, who flitted about them with beseeching

Then the beggar spoke. 'With food in his belly a man is not badly off,
even in hell,' he said, setting down the empty pot.

'God repay you for feeding me!' said Jasiek, and squeezed the beggar's
hand; the other did not at once let him go, but felt his hand

'For a few years you have not worked with your hands,' he murmured; but
Jan tore his hand away in a fright.

'Sit down,' continued the beggar, 'don't be afraid. The Lord Jesus
said: "All are just men who fear God and help the poor orphan."
Fearnot, man. I am no Judas nor Jew, but an honest Christian and a poor
orphan myself.'

He thought for a moment, then in a quiet voice said:

'Attend to three things: love the Lord Jesus, never be hungry, and give
to a man more unfortunate than yourself. All the rest is just nothing,
rotten fancies. A wise man should never vex himself uselessly. Ho! we
know a dozen things. Eh, what do you say?'

He pricked up his ears and waited, but Jasiek remained stubbornly
silent, fearing to betray himself; then the beggar brought out his bark
snuffbox, tapped it with his finger, took snuff, sneezed, and handed it
to the boy. Then, bending his huge blind face over the fire, he began
to talk in low monotonous tones.

'There is no justice in the world; all men are Pharisees and rogues;
one man pushes another in front of him out of the way; each tries to be
the first to cheat the other, to eat him up. That wasn't the will of
the Lord Jesus. Ho! go into a squire's house, take off your cap, and
sing, though your throat is bursting, about Jesus and Mary and all the
Saints; then wait - nothing comes. Put in a few prayers about the Lord's
Transfiguration; then wait. Nothing again. No, only the small dogs
whine about your wallet and the maids bustle behind the hedges. Add a
litany - perhaps they give you two farthings or a mouldy bit of bread.
Curse you! I wish you were dirty, half-blind, and had to ask even
beggars for help! Why, after all that praying the whisky to wash my
throat with costs me more than they give!' He spat with disgust.

'But are others better off, eh?' he continued, after a sniff. 'Jantek
Kulik - I dare say you know him - took a little pig of a squire's. And
what enjoyment did he have of it? Precious little. It was a miserable
creature, like a small yard dog; you could drown the whole body of him
in a quart of whisky. Well, for that he was arrested and put in prison
for half a year - and for what? for a miserable pig! as if a pig weren't
one of God's creatures too, and some were meant to die of hunger, and
some to have more than they can stuff into their throats. And yet the
Lord Jesus said: "What a poor man takes, that is as if you had given it
for My sake." Amen. Won't you take a drink?'

'God repay you, but it has already turned my head a bit!'

'Silly! the Lord Jesus himself drank at feasts. Drinking is no sin; it
is a sin, sure enough, to swill like a pig or to sit without talking
when good folk are gossiping, but not to drink the gift of God to the
bottom. You just drink my health,' he whispered resolutely.

He drank himself from the bottle with a long gurgle in his throat; then
handing it to Jasiek, said merrily:

'Drink, orphan. Observe only three things - to work the whole week, to
say your Paternoster, and on Sunday to give to the unfortunate, and
then you shall have redemption for your soul. Man, if you can't drink a
gallon, drink a quart!'

Thereupon all fell silent. The woman was sleeping with her head
drooping by the extinct flame, the man had opened wide his
cataract-covered eyes at the glowing coals, and once and again nodded
vigorously. In the corner the whispers were silent; only the wind
struck the panes more violently than ever and shook the door, and from
the inner room burst forth the voices in an ecstasy, it seemed, of pity
or despair.

Jasiek, overcome by the warmth of the whisky, felt sleepy, stretched
his legs out towards the fire, and felt an irresistible desire to lie
down. He fought against it with energetic movements, but every now and
then became utterly stiff and remembered nothing. A pleasant warm mist
compounded out of the beams of the fire, kindly words, and stillness,
wrapped him in darkness and a deep sense of freedom and security. At
times he woke suddenly, he could not have said why, glanced over the
room, or listened for a moment to the beggar, who was asleep but still
muttered: 'For all souls in Purgatory - Ave Maria, gratia plena,' and
then, 'Man, I tell you that a good beggar should have a stick with a
point, a deep wallet, and a long Paternoster.' Here he woke up, and
feeling Jasiek's eyes on him, recovered his wits and began to speak:

'Hear what an old man says. Take a drop to my health, and listen. Man,
I tell you, be prudent, but don't force it into any one's eyes. Note
everything, and yet be blind to everything. If you live with a fool, be
a greater fool; with a lame man, have no legs at all; with a sick man,
die for him. If men give you a farthing, thank them as if it were a bit
of silver; if they set dogs on you, take it as your offering to the
Lord Jesus; if they beat you with a stick, say your Paternoster.

'Man, I tell you, do as I advise and you shall have your wallet full,
your belly like a mountain, and you shall lead the whole world in a
string like silly cattle.... Eh, eh, I am a man not born to-day but one
that knows a dozen things. He that can observe the way of the world, no
trouble shall come to him. At the squire's house take your revenge on
the peasants; that is a sure farthing and perhaps a morsel from the
dinner; at the priest's abuse the peasants and the squires; that is two
farthings sure, and absolution too; and when you are in the cottages,
abuse everything, and you will eat millet and bacon, and drink whisky
mixed with fat.'

Here he began to drowse, still murmuring incoherently, 'Man, I tell
you... for the soul of Julina... Ave Maria...', and rocked on the

'Gratia plena... help a poor cripple!' This was the woman babbling in
her sleep, as she raised her head from the fire-place; but the man woke
up suddenly and cried, 'Be quiet, silly!' for the entrance door was
thrown loudly open, and there pushed in among them a tall yellow-haired

'On to the road,' he called in a deep voice, 'it's time'; and at once
the whole crowd of sleepers sprang to their feet, began to put their
loads on their backs, to get ready, to push forward into the middle of
the room and again for no reason to retire. A low tumult of
sound - abuse or complaint - burst from all: there were hot passages of
words, cries, curses, gesticulations, or the beginnings of muttered
prayers, noise, and crying children - but all kept under restraint, and
yet filling the gloomy blackened room with a sense of alarm.

Jasiek awoke completely, and with his shoulders pressed to the now
cooling fireplace, looked round curiously at the people as far as he
could make them out.

'Where are they going?' he asked the beggar.

'To Brazil.'

'Is it far?'

'Ho! ho! it's the end of the world, beyond the tenth sea.'

'And why?'

'First because they are fools, and second because they are

'And do they know the way?' Jasiek asked again, hugely astonished.

But the beggar was no longer answering him; pushing on the woman with a
stick, he came forward into the middle of the room, fell on his knees,
and began in a sort of plaintive chant:

'You are going beyond the seas, the mountains, the forests - to the end
of the world. The Lord Jesus bless you, orphans! The Virgin of
Czenstochowa keep you, and all the saints help you in return for the
farthing that you give to this poor cripple...To the Lord's
Transfiguration! Ave Maria....'

'Gratia plena: the Lord be with you,' murmured the woman, kneeling at
his side.

'Blessed art thou among women,' answered the crowd and pressed forward.

All knelt; a subdued sobbing arose; heads were bowed; trusting and
resigned hearts breathed their emotions in prayer. A warm glow of trust
kindled the dull eyes and pinched faces, straightened the bent
shoulders, and gave them such force that they rose from their prayer
heartened and unconquerable.

'Herszlik, Herszlik!' they called to the Jew, who had disappeared into
the inner room. They were eager now to go into that unknown world, so
terrible and yet so alluring for its very strangeness; eager to take on
their shoulders their new fate and to escape from the old.

Herszlik came out armed with a dark lantern, counted the people, made
them range themselves in pairs, opened the door: they began to move
like some phantom army of misery, a column of ragged shadows, and

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Online LibraryVariousSelected Polish Tales → online text (page 17 of 22)