Selected Polish Tales online

. (page 19 of 22)
Online LibraryVariousSelected Polish Tales → online text (page 19 of 22)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

exhalation from a corpse. The old man was lying there, cold as ice; one
half of his body had frozen on to the floor; they had to tear him off
forcibly before they could drag him across the threshold and into the

Antkowa began to tremble violently at the sight of him; he looked
terrifying in the light of the grey dawn, on the white coverlet of
snow, with his anguished face, wide-open eyes, and drooping tongue on
which the teeth had closed firmly. There were blue patches on his skin,
and he was covered with filth from head to foot.

'Take hold,' whispered the man, bending over him. 'How horribly cold he

The icy wind which rises just before the sun, blew into their faces,
and shook the snow off the swinging twigs with a dry crackle.

Here and there a star was still visible against the leaden background
of the sky. From the village came the creaking noise of the hauling of
water, and the cocks crew as if the weather were going to change.

Antkowa shut her eyes and covered her hands with her apron, before she
took hold of the old man's feet; they could hardly lift him, he was so
heavy. They had barely put him down on a bench when she fled back into
the house, throwing out a linen-rag to her husband to cover the corpse.

The children were busy scraping potatoes; she waited impatiently at the

'Have done...come in!... Lord, how long you are!'

'We must get some one to come and wash him,' she said, laying the
breakfast, when he had come in.

'I will fetch the deaf-mute.'

'Don't go to work to-day.'

', not I...'

They did not speak again, and ate their breakfast without appetite,
although as a rule they finished their four quarts of soup between

When they went out into the yard they walked quickly, and did not turn
their heads towards the other side. They were worried, but did not know
why; they felt no remorse; it was perhaps more a vague fear of the
corpse, or fear of death, that shook them and made them silent.

When it was broad day, Antek fetched the village deaf-mute, who washed
and dressed the old man, laid him out, and put a consecrated candle at
his head.

Antek then went to give notice to the priest and to the Soltys of his
father-in-law's death and his own inability to pay for the funeral.

'Let Tomek bury him; he has got all the money.'

The news of the old man's death spread rapidly throughout the village.
People soon began to assemble in little groups to look at the corpse.
They murmured a prayer, shook their heads, and went off to talk it

It was not till towards evening that Tomek, the other son-in-law, under
pressure of public opinion, declared himself willing to pay for the

On the third day, shortly before this was to take place, Tomek's wife
made her appearance at Antek's cottage.

In the passage she almost came nose to nose with her sister, who was
just taking a pail of dishwater out to the cowshed.

'Blessed be Jesus Christ,' she murmured, and kept her hand on the

'Now: look at that... soul of a Judas!' Antkowa put the pail down hard.
'She's come to spy about here. Got rid of the old one somehow, didn't
you? Hasn't he given everything to you... and you dare show yourself
here, you trull! Have you come for the rest of the rags he left here,

'I bought him a new sukmana at Whitsuntide, he can keep that on, of
course, but I must have the sheepskin back, because it has been bought
with money I have earned in the sweat of my brow,' Tomekowa replied

'Have it back, you mangy dog, have it back?' screamed Antkowa. 'I'll
give it you, you'll see what you will have...' and she looked round for
an object that would serve her purpose. 'Take it away? You dare! You
have crawled to him and lickspittled till he became the idiot he was
and made everything over to you and wronged me, and then...'

'Everybody knows that we bought the land from him, there are

'Bought it? Look at her! You mean to say you're not afraid to lie like
that under God's living eyes? Bought it! Cheats, that's what you are,
thieves, dogs! You stole the money from him first, and then.... Didn't
you make him eat out of the pig-pail? Adam is a witness that he had to
pick the potatoes out of the pig-pail, ha! You've let him sleep in the
cowshed, because, you said, he stank so that you couldn't eat. Fifteen
acres of land and a dower-life like that... for so much property! And
you've beaten him too, you swine, you monkey!'

'Hold your snout, or I'll shut it for you and make you remember, you
sow, you trull!'

'Come on then, come on, you destitute creature!' 'I... destitute?'

'Yes, you! You would have rotted in a ditch, the vermin would have
eaten you up, if Tomek hadn't married you.'

'I, destitute? Oh you carrion!' They sprang at each other, clutching at
each other's hair; they fought in the narrow passage, screaming
themselves hoarse all the time.

'You street-walker, you loafer... there! that's one for you! There's
one for my fifteen acres, and for all the wrong you have done me, you
dirty dog!'

'For the love of God, you women, leave off, leave off! It's a sin and a
shame!' cried the neighbours.

'Let me go, you leper, will you let go?'

'I'll beat you to death, I will tear you to pieces, you filth!'

They fell down, hitting each other indiscriminately, knocked over the
pail, and rolled about in the pigwash. At last, speechless with rage
and only breathing hard, they still banged away at each other. The men
were hardly able to separate them. Purple in the face, scratched all
over, and covered with filth, they looked like witches. Their fury was
boundless; they sprang at each other again, and had to be separated a
second time.

At last Antkowa began to sob hysterically with rage and exhaustion,
tore her own hair and wailed: 'Oh Jesus! Oh little child Jesus! Oh
Mary! Look at this pestiferous woman...curse those heathen...oh!
oh!...' she was only able to roar, leaning against the wall.

Tomekowa, meanwhile, was cursing and shouting outside the house, and
banging her heels against the door.

The spectators stood in little groups, taking counsel with each other,
and stamping their feet in the snow. The women looked like red spots
dabbed on to the wall; they pressed their knees together, for the wind
was penetratingly cold. They murmured remarks to each other from time
to time, while they watched the road leading to the church, the spires
of which stood out clearly behind the branches of the bare trees. Every
minute some one or other wanted to have another look at the corpse; it
was a perpetual coming and going. The small yellow flames of the
candles could be seen through the half-open door, flaring in the
draught, and momentarily revealing a glimpse of the dead man's sharp
profile as he lay in the coffin. The smell of burning juniper floated
through the air, together with the murmurings of prayers and the grunts
of the deaf-mute.

At last the priest arrived with the organist. The white pine coffin was
carried out and put into the cart. The women began to sing the usual
lamentations, while the procession started down the long village street
towards the cemetery. The priest intoned the first words of the
Service for the Dead, walking at the head of the procession with his
black biretta on his head; he had thrown a thick fur cloak over his
surplice; the wind made the ends of his stole flutter; the words of the
Latin hymn fell from his lips at intervals, dully, as though they had
been frozen; he looked bored and impatient, and let his eyes wander
into the distance. The wind tugged at the black banner, and the
pictures of heaven and hell on it wobbled and fluttered to and fro, as
though anxious to display themselves to the rows of cottages on either
side, where women with shawls over their heads and bare-headed men were
standing huddled together.

They bowed reverently, made the sign of the cross, and beat their

The dogs were barking furiously from behind the hedges, some jumped on
to the stone walls and broke into long-drawn howls.

Eager little children peeped out from behind the closed windows, beside
toothless used-up old people's faces, furrowed as fields in autumn.

A small crowd of boys in linen trousers and blue jackets with brass
buttons, their bare feet stuck into wooden sandals, ran behind the
priest, staring at the pictures of heaven and hell, and intoning the
intervals of the chant with thin, shivering voices: a! o!... They kept
it up as long as the organist did not change the chant.

Ignatz proudly walked in front, holding the banner with one hand and
singing the loudest of all. He was flushed with exertion and cold, but
he never relaxed, as though eager to show that he alone had a right to
sing, because it was his grandfather who was being carried to the
grave. They left the village behind. The wind threw itself upon Antek,
whose huge form towered above all the others, and ruffled his hair; but
he did not notice the wind, he was entirely taken up with the horses
and with steadying the coffin, which was tilting dangerously at every
hole in the road.

The two sisters were walking close behind the coffin, murmuring prayers
and eyeing each other with furious glances.

'Tsutsu! Go home!...Go home at once, you carrion!' One of the mourners
pretended to pick up a stone. The dog, who had been following the cart,
whined, put her tail between her legs, and fled behind a heap of stones
by the roadside; when the procession had moved on a good bit, she ran
after it in a semi-circle, and anxiously kept close to the horses, lest
she should be prevented again from following.

The Latin chant had come to an end. The women, with shrill voices,
began to sing the old hymn: 'He who dwelleth under the protection of
the Lord.'

It sounded thin. The blizzard, which was getting up, did not allow the
singing to come to much. Twilight was falling.

The wind drove clouds of snow across from the endless, steppe-like
plains, dotted here and there with skeleton trees, and lashed the
little crowd of human beings as with a whip.

'... and loves and keeps with faithful heart His word...,' they
insisted through the whistling of the tempest and the frequent shouts
of Antek, who was getting breathless with cold: 'Woa! woa, my lads!'

Snowdrifts were beginning to form across the road like huge wedges,
starting from behind trees and heaps of stones.

Again and again the singing was interrupted when the people looked
round anxiously into the white void: it seemed to be moving when the
wind struck it with dull thuds; now it towered in huge walls, now it
dissolved like breakers, turned over, and furiously darted sprays of a
thousand sharp needles into the faces of the mourners. Many of them
returned half-way, fearing an increase of the blizzard, the others
hurried on to the cemetery in the greatest haste, almost at a run. They
got through the ceremony as fast as they could; the grave was ready,
they quickly sang a little more, the priest sprinkled holy water on the
coffin; frozen clods of earth and snow rolled down, and the people fled

Tomek invited everybody to his house, because 'the reverend Father had
said to him, that other-wise the ceremony would doubtless end in an
ungodly way at the public-house.'

Antek's answer to the invitation was a curse. The four of them,
including Ignatz and the peasant Smoletz, turned into the inn.

They drank four quarts of spirits mixed with fat, ate three pounds of
sausages, and talked about the money transaction.

The heat of the room and the spirits soon made Antek very drunk. He
stumbled so on the way home that his wife took him firmly under the

Smoletz remained at the inn to drink an extra glass in prospect of the
loan, but Ignatz ran home ahead as fast as he could, for he was
horribly cold.

'Look here, mother...,' said Antek, 'the five acres are mine! aha!
mine, do you hear? In the autumn I shall sow wheat and barley, and in
the spring we will plant potatoes... mine... they are mine!... God is
my comfort, sayest thou...,' he suddenly began to sing.

The storm was raging, and howling.

'Shut up! You'll fall down, and that will be the end of it.'

'... His angel keepeth watch...,' he stopped abruptly. The darkness was
impenetrable, nothing could be seen at a distance of two feet. The
blizzard had reached the highest degree of fury; whistling and howling
on a gigantic scale filled the air, and mountains of snow hurled
themselves upon them.

From Tomek's cottage came the sound of funeral chants and loud talking
when they passed by.

'These heathen! These thieves! You wait, I'll show you my five acres!
Then I shall have ten. You won't lord it over me! Dogs'-breed... aha!
I'll work, I'll slave, but I shall get it, eh, mother? we will get it,
what?' he hammered his chest with his fist, and rolled his drunken

He went on like this for a while, but as soon as they reached their
home, the woman dragged him into bed, where he fell down like a dead
man. But he did not go to sleep yet, for after a time he shouted:

The boy approached, but with caution, for fear of contact with the
paternal foot.

'Ignatz, you dead dog! Ignatz, you shall be a first-class peasant, not
a beggarly professional man,' he bawled, and brought his fist down on
the bedstead.

'The five acres are mine, mine! Foxy Germans,[1] you... da...' He went
to sleep.

[Footnote 1: 'The term 'German' is used for 'foreigner' generally, whom
the Polish peasant despises.]




'Yakob... Yakob... Yakob!'

The old man was repeating his name to himself, or rather he was
inwardly listening to the sound of it which he had been accustomed to
hear for so many years. He had heard it in the stable, in the fields,
and on the grazing-ground, on the steps of the manor-house and at the
Jew's, but never like this. It seemed to issue from unknown depths,
summoning sounds never heard before, sights never yet seen, producing a
confusion which he had never experienced. He saw it, felt it
everywhere; it was itself the cause of a hopeless despair.

This despair crept silently into Yakob's fatalistic and submissive
soul. He felt it under his hand, as though he were holding another
hand. He was as conscious of it as of his hairy chest, his cold and
starved body. This despair, moreover, was blended with a kind of
patient expectancy which was expressed by the whispering of his pale,
trembling lips, the tepid sweat under his armpits, the saliva running
into his throat and making his tongue feel rigid like a piece of wood.

This is what happened: he tried to remember how it had all happened.

They had come swarming in from everywhere; they had taken the men away;
it was firearms everywhere...everywhere firearms, noise and hubbub. The
whole world was pushing, running, sweating or freezing. They arrived
from this side or from that; they asked questions, they hunted people
down, they followed up a trail, they fought. Of course, one must not
betray one's brothers, but then...who are one's brothers?

They placed watches in the mountains, in the forests, on the fields;
they even drove people into the mountain-passes and told them to hold
out at any cost.

Yakób had been sitting in the chimney-corner in the straw and dust,
covered with his frozen rags. The wind swept over the mountains and
penetrated into the cottage, bringing with it a white covering of hoar-
frost; it was sighing eerily in the fields; the fields themselves
seemed to flee from it, and to be alive, running away into the
distance. The earth in white convulsions besieged the sky, and the sky
got entangled in the mountain-forests.

Yakób was looking at the snow which was falling thickly, and tried to
penetrate the veil with his eyes. Stronger and faster raged the
blizzard. Yakób's stare became vacant under the rumbling of the storm
and the driving of the snow; one could not have told whether he was
looking with eyes or with lumps of ice.

Shadows were flitting across the snowdrifts. They were the outlines of
objects lit up by the fire; they trembled on the window-frames; the
fire flickered, and the shadows treacherously caressed the images of
saints on the walls. The beam played on the window, threw a red light
on the short posts of the railing, and disappeared in pursuit of the
wind in the fields.


And he had really had nothing to do with it! It had all gone against
him continuously, pertinaciously, and to no purpose. It had attached
itself to him, clung to the dry flour that flew about in atoms in the
tin where the bit of cheese also was kept. It had bewitched the
creaking of the windows on their hinges; it had stared from the empty
seats along the walls.

But he kept on beating his breast. His forehead was wrinkled in dried-
up folds, his brows bristled fantastically into shaggy, dirty tufts.
His heavy, blunt nose, powdered with hairs at the tip, stood out
obstinately between two deep folds on either side. These folds overhung
the corners of his mouth, and were joined below the chin by a network
of pallid veins. A noise, light as a beetle's wing, came in puffs from
the half-open lips; they were swollen and purple like an overgrown

Yakób had been sitting in Turkish fashion, his hands crossed over his
chest, breathing forth his misery so quietly that it covered him,
together with the hoar-frost, stopped his ears and made the tufts of
hair on his chest glitter. He was hugging his sorrow to himself,
abandoning the last remnant of hope, and longing for deliverance.
Behind the wrinkles of his forehead there swarmed a multitude not so
much of pictures as of ghosts of the past, yet vividly present.

At last he got up and sat down on the bench in the chimney-corner, drew
a pipe from his trouser-pocket and put it between his teeth, forgetting
to light it. He laid his heavy hands round the stem. Beyond the
blizzard and the shadow-play of the flame, there appeared to him the
scene of his wife and daughters' flight. He had given up everything he
possessed, had taken off his sheepskin, had himself loosened the cow
from the post. For a short moment he had caught sight of his wife and
daughters again in the distance, tramping through the snow as they
passed the cross-roads, then they had been swallowed up in a mass of
people, horses, guns, carts, shouts and curses. Since then he had
constantly fancied that he was being called, yet he knew that there was
no one to call him. His thoughts were entirely absorbed in what he had
seen then. With his wife all his possessions had gone. Now there was
nothing but silence, surrounding him with a sharp breath of pain and

By day and by night Yakob had listened to the shots that struck his
cottage and his pear-trees. He chewed a bit of cheese from time to
time, and gulped down with it the bitter fear that his cottage might be
set on fire.

For here and there, like large red poppies on the snow, the glare of
burning homesteads leapt up into the sky.

'Here I am...watching,' he said to himself, when he looked at these
blood-red graves. He smiled at the sticks of firewood on his hearth,
which was the dearest thing on earth to him. The walls of his cottage
were one with his inmost being, and every moment when he saw them
standing, seemed to him like precious savings which he was putting
away. So he watched for several days; the vermin were overrunning the
place, and he was becoming desperate. Since mid-day the silence had
deepened; the day declined, and there was nothing in the world but
solitude and snow.

Yakób went over to the window. The snow was lying deep on the fields,
like a shimmering coat of varnish; the world was bathed in the light of
a pale, wan moon. The forest-trees stood out here and there in blue
points, like teeth. Large and brilliant the stars looked down, and
above the milky way, veiled in vapours, hung the sickle of the moon.

While in the immensity of the night cold and glittering worlds were
bowing down before the eternal, Yakób looked, and noticed something
approaching from the mountains. Along the heights and slopes there was
a long chain of lights; it was opening out from the centre into two
lines on either side, which looked as though they were lost in the
forest. Below them there were confused gleams in the fields, and
behind, in the distance, the glow of the burning homesteads.

'They have burned the vicarage,' thought Yakób, and his heart answered:
'and here am I...watching.'

He pressed against the window-frame, glued his grey face to the panes
and, trembling with cold, sent out an obstinate and hostile glance into
space, as though determined to obtain permission to keep his own

Suddenly he pricked up his ears. Something was approaching from the
distance across the forest very cautiously. The snow was creaking under
the advancing steps. In the great silence it sounded like the forging
of iron. Those were horses' hoofs stamping the snow.

This sound, suppressed as it was, produced in him a peculiar sensation
which starts in the head and grips you in the nape of the neck, the
consciousness that someone is hiding close to you.

Yakob stood quite still at the window, not even moving his pipe from
one corner of his mouth to the other. Not he himself seemed to be
trembling, only his rags.

The door was suddenly thrown open and a soldier appeared on the
threshold. The light of a lantern which was suspended on his chest,
filled the room.

Yakob's blood was freezing. Cossacks, hairy like bears, were standing
in the opening of the door, the snow which covered them was shining
like a white flame. In the courtyard there were steaming horses;
lanceheads were glittering like reliquaries.

Yakob understood that they were calling him 'old man', and asking him
questions. He extended his hands to express that he knew nothing. Some
of the Cossacks entered, and made signs to him to make up the fire.

He noticed that they were bringing more horses into the yard, small,
shaggy ponies like wolves.

He became calmer, and his fear disappeared; he only remained cautious
and observant; everything that happened seemed to take hours, yet he
saw it with precision.

'It is is cold!'

He made up the fire for these bandits who stretched themselves on the
benches; he felt they were talking and laughing about him, and he
turned to them and nodded; he thought it would please them if he showed
that he approved of them. They asked him about God knows what, where
they were, and where they were not. As though he knew!

Then they started all over again, while they swung their booted legs
under the seats. One of them came up to the hearth, and clapped the
crouching Yakob on his back for fun, but it hurt. It was a resounding
smack. Yakob scratched himself and rumpled his hair, unable to

They boiled water and made tea; a smell of sausages spread about the
room. Yakob bit his jaws together and looked at the fire. He sat in his
place as though he had been glued to it.

His ears were tingling when he heard the soldiers grinding their teeth
on their food, tearing the skin off the sausages and smacking their

A large and painful void was gaping in his inside.

They devoured their food fast and noisily, and an odour of brandy began
to fill the room, and contracted Yakob's throat.

He understood that they were inviting him to share the meal, but he
felt uneasy about that, and though his stomach seemed to have shrunk,
and the sausage-skins and bones which they had thrown away lay quite
close to him, he could not make up his mind to move and pick them up.

'Come on!'

The soldier beckoned to him. 'Come here!'

The old man felt that he was weakening, the savoury smell took
possession of him.

But 'I shan't go,' he thought. The soldier, gnawing a bone, repeated,
'Come on!'

'I shan't go,' thought Yakob, and spat into the fire, to assure himself
that he was not going. All the same...the terribly tempting smell made
him more and more feeble.

At last two of them got up, took him under the arms, and sat him down
between them.

They made signs to him, they held the sausage under his nose; the tea
was steaming, the brandy smelt delicious.

Yakob put his hands on the table, then put them behind him. Black
shadows were gesticulating on the walls. He felt unhappy about sharing
a meal with people without knowing what they were, never having seen or
known them before. They were Russians, thus much he knew. He had a

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 19 21 22

Online LibraryVariousSelected Polish Tales → online text (page 19 of 22)