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'Peering again! What does he see down there?' he whispered.

Stasiek was his favourite, and struck him as an unusual child, who
could see things that others did not see.

While Slimak cracked his whip and the horses went on, his thoughts were
travelling in the direction of the desired field.

'How much land have I got?' he meditated, 'ten acres; if I had only
sown six or seven every year and let the rest lie fallow, how could I
have fed my hungry family? And the man, he eats as much as I do, though
he is lame; and he has fifteen roubles wages besides. Magda eats less,
but then she is lazy enough to make a dog howl. I'm lucky when they
want me for work at the manor, or if a Jewess hires my horses to go for
a drive, or my wife sells butter and eggs. And what is there saved when
all is said and done? Perhaps fifty roubles in the whole year. When we
were first married, a hundred did not astonish me. Manure the ground
indeed! Let the squire take it into his head not to employ me, or not
to sell me fodder, what then? I should have to drive the cattle to
market and die of hunger.

'I am not as well off as Gryb or Lukasiak or Sarnecki. They live like
gentlemen. One drives to church with his wife, the other wears a cap
like a burgher, and the third would like to turn out the Wojt[1] and
wear the chain himself. But I have to say to myself, 'Be poor on ten
acres and go and bow and scrape to the bailiff at the manor that he may
remember you. Well, let it be as it is! Better be master on a square
yard of your own than a beggar on another's large estate.' A cloud of
dust was rising on the high-road beyond the river. Some one was coming
towards the bridge from the manor-house, riding in a peculiar fashion.
The wind blew from behind, but the dust was so thick that sometimes it
travelled backwards. Occasionally horse and rider showed above it, but
the next moment it whirled round and round them again, as if the road
was raising a storm. Slimak shaded his eyes with his hand.

[Footnote 1: The designations Wojt and Soltys are derived from the
German Vogt and Sdiultheiss. Their functions in the townships or
villages are of a different kind; in small villages there may be only
one of these functionaries, the Soltys. He is the representative of the
Government, collects rates and taxes and requisitions horses for the
army. The Wojt is head of the village, and magistrate. All legal
matters would be referred to him.]

'What an odd way of riding? who can it be? not the squire, nor his
coachman. He can't be a Catholic, not even a Jew; for although a Jew
would bob up and down on the horse as he does, he would never make a
horse go in that reckless way. It must be some crazy stranger.'

The rider had now come near enough for Slimak to see what he was like.
He was slim and dressed in gentleman's clothes, consisting of a light
suit and velvet jockey cap. He had eyeglasses on his nose and a cigar
in his mouth, and he was carrying his riding whip under his arm,
holding the reins in both hands between the horse's neck and his own
beard, while he was shaking violently up and down; he hugged the saddle
so tightly with his bow legs that his trousers were rucked up, showing
his calves.

Anyone in the very least acquainted with equestrian matters could guess
that this was the first time the rider had sat upon a horse, or that
the horse had carried such a rider. At moments they seemed to be
ambling along harmoniously, until the bobbing cavalier would lose his
balance and tug at the reins; then the horse, which had a soft mouth,
would turn sideways or stand still; the rider would then smack his
lips, and if this had no effect he would fumble for the whip. The
horse, guessing what was required, would start again, shaking him up
and down until he looked like a rag doll badly sewn together.

All this did not upset his temper, for indeed, this was the first time
the rider had realized the dearest wish of a lifetime, and he was
enjoying himself to the full.

Sometimes the quiet but desperate horse would break into a gallop. Then
the rider, keeping his balance by a miracle, would drop his
bridle-fantasias and imagine himself a cavalry captain riding to the
attack at the head of his squadron, until, unaccustomed to his rank of
officer, he would perform some unexpected movement which made the horse
suddenly stand still again, and would cause the gallant captain to hit
his nose or his cigar against the neck of his steed.

He was, moreover, a democratic gentleman. When the horse took a fancy
to trot towards the village instead of towards the bridge, a crowd of
dogs and children ran after him with every sign of pleasure. Instead of
annoyance a benevolent enjoyment would then take possession of him, for
next to riding exercise he passionately loved the people, because they
could manage horses. After a while, however, his role of cavalry
captain would please him more, and after further performances with the
reins, he succeeded in turning back towards the bridge. He evidently
intended to ride through the length and breadth of the valley.

Slimak was still watching him.

'Eh, that must be the squire's brother-in-law, who was expected from
Warsaw,' he said to himself, much amused; 'our squire chose a gracious
little wife, and was not even very long about it; but he might have
searched the length of the world for a brother-in-law like that! A bear
would be a commoner sight in these parts than a man sitting a horse as
he does! He looks as stupid as a cowherd - still, he is the squire's

While Slirnak was thus taking the measure of this friend of the people,
the latter had reached the bridge; the noise of Slimakowa's stick had
attracted his attention. He turned the horse towards the bridge-rail
and craned his neck over the water; indeed, his slim figure and peaked
jockey cap made him look uncommonly like a crane.

'What does he want now?' thought Slimak. The horseman was evidently
asking Slimakowa a question, for she got up and raised her head. Slimak
noticed for the first time that she was in the habit of tucking up her
skirts very high, showing her bare knees.

'What the deuce does he want?' he repeated, objecting to the short

The cavalier rode off the bridge with no little difficulty and reined
up beside the woman. Slimak was now watching breathlessly.

Suddenly the young man stretched out his hand towards Slimakowa's neck,
but she raised her stick so threateningly that the scared horse started
away at a gallop, and the rider was left clinging to his neck.

'Jagna! what are you doing?' shouted Slimak; 'that's the squire's
brother-in-law, you fool!'

But the shout did not reach her, and the young man did not seem at all
offended. He kissed his hand to Slimakowa and dug his heels into the
horse, which threw up its head and started in the direction of the
cottage at a sharp trot. But this time success did not attend the
rider, his feet slipped out of the stirrups, and clutching his charger
by the mane, he shouted: 'Stop, you devil!'

Jendrek heard the cry, clambered on to the gate, and seeing the strange
performance, burst out laughing. The rider's jockey cap fell off. 'Pick
up the cap, my boy,' the horseman called out in passing.

'Pick it up yourself,' laughed Jendrek, clapping his hands to excite
the horse still more.

The father listened to the boy's answer speechless with astonishment,
but he soon recovered himself.

'Jendrek, you young dog, give the gentleman his cap when he tells you!'
he cried.

Jendrek took the jockey cap between two fingers, holding it in front of
him and offering it to the rider when he had succeeded in stopping his

'Thank you, thank you very much,' he said, no less amused than Jendrek

'Jendrek, take off your cap to the gentleman at once,' called Slimak.

'Why should I take off my cap to everybody?' asked the lad saucily.

'Excellent, that's right!...' The young man seemed pleased. 'Wait, you
shall have twenty kopeks for that; a free citizen should never humble
himself before anybody.'

Slimak, by no means sharing the gentleman's democratic theories,
advanced towards Jendrek with his cap in one hand and the whip in the

'Citizen!' cried the cavalier, 'I beg you not to beat the not
crush his independent not...' he would have liked to have
continued, but the horse, getting bored, started off again in the
direction of the bridge. When he saw Slimakowa coming towards the
cottage, he took off his dusty cap and called out:

'Madam, do not let him beat the boy!'

Jendrek had disappeared.

Slimak stood rooted to the spot, pondering upon this queer fish, who
first was impertinent to his wife, then called her 'Madam', and himself
'Citizen', and praised Jendrek for his cheek.

He returned angrily to his horses.

'Woa, lads! what's the world coming to? A peasant's son won't take off
his cap to a gentleman, and the gentleman praises him for it! He is the
squire's brother-in-law - all the same, he must be a little wrong in his
head. Soon there will be no gentlemen left, and then the peasants will
have to die. Maybe when Jendrek grows up he will look after himself; he
won't be a peasant, that's clear. Woa, lads!'

He imagined Jendrek in button-boots and a jockey cap, and he spat.

'Bah! so long as I am about, you won't dress like that, young dog! All
the same I shall have to warm his latter end for him, or else he won't
take his cap off to the squire next, and then I can go begging. It's
the wife's fault, she is always spoiling him. There's nothing for it, I
must give him a hiding.'

Again dust was rising on the road, this time in the direction of the
plain. Slimak saw two forms, one tall, the other oblong; the oblong was
walking behind the tall one and nodding its head.

'Who's sending a cow to market?' he thought, '... well, the boy must be
thrashed...if only I could have another cow and that bit of field.'

He drove the horses down the hill towards the Bialka, where he caught
sight of Stasiek, but could see nothing more of his farm or of the
road. He was beginning to feel very tired; his feet seemed a heavy
weight, but the weight of uncertainty was still greater, and he never
got enough sleep. When his work was finished, he often had to drive off
to the town.

'If I had another cow and that field,' he thought, 'I could sleep

He had been meditating on this while harrowing over a fresh bit for
half an hour, when he heard his wife calling from the hill:

'Josef, Josef!'

'What's up?'

'Do you know what has happened?' 'How should I know?'

'Is it a new tax?' anxiously crossed his mind.

'Magda's uncle has come, you know, that Grochowski....'

'If he wants to take the girl back - let him.'

'He has brought a cow and wants to sell her to Gryb for thirty-five
paper roubles and a silver rouble for the halter. She is a lovely cow.'

'Let him sell her; what's that to do with me?'

'This much: that you are going to buy her,' said the woman firmly.

Slimak dropped his hand with the whip, bent his head forward, and
looked at his wife. The proposal seemed monstrous.

'What's wrong with you?' he asked.

'Wrong with me?' She raised her voice. 'Can't I afford the cow? Gryb
has bought his wife a new cart, and you grudge me the beasts? There are
two cows in the shed; do you ever trouble about them? You wouldn't have
a shirt to your back if it weren't for them.'

'Good Lord,' groaned the man, who was getting muddled by his wife's
eloquence,' how am I to feed her? they won't sell me fodder from the

'Rent that field, and you will have fodder.'

'Fear God, Jagna! what are you saying? How am I to rent that field?'

'Go to the manor and ask the square; say you will pay up the rent in a
year's time.'

'As God lives, the woman is mad! our beasts pull a little from that
field now for nothing; I should be worse off, because I should have to
pay both for the cow and for the field. I won't go to the squire.'

His wife came close up to him and looked into his eyes. 'You won't go?'

'I won't go.'

'Very well, then I will take what fodder there is and your horses may
go to the devil; but I won't let that cow go, _I_ will buy her!'

'Then buy her.'

'Yes, I will buy her, but you have got to do the bargaining with
Grochowski; I haven't the time, and I won't drink vodka with him.'

'Drink! bargain with him! you are mad about that cow!'

The quick-tempered woman shook her fist in his face.

'Josef, don't upset me when you yourself have nothing at all to
propose. Listen! you are worrying every day that you haven't enough
manure; you are always telling me that you want three beasts, and when
the time comes, you won't buy them. The two cows you have cost you
nothing and bring you in produce, the third would be clear gain.
Listen.... I tell you, listen! Finish your work, then come indoors and
bargain for the cow; if not, I'll have nothing more to do with you.'

She turned her back and went off.

The man put his hands to his head.

'God bless me, what a woman!' he groaned, 'how can I, poor devil, rent
that field? She persists in having the cow, and makes a fuss, and it
doesn't matter what you say, you may as well talk to a wall. Why was I
ever born? everything is against me. Woa, lads!'

He fancied that the earth and the wind were laughing at him again:

'You'll pay the thirty-five paper roubles and the silver rouble for the
halter! Week after week, month after month you have been putting by
your money, and to-day you'll spend it all as if you were cracking a
nut. You will swell Grochowski's pockets and your own pouch will be
empty. You will wait in fear and uncertainty at the manor and bow to
the bailiff when it pleases him to give you the receipt for your

'Perhaps the squire won't even let me have the field.'

'Don't talk nonsense!' twittered the sparrows; 'you know quite well
that he'll let you have it.'

'Oh yes, he'll let me have it,' he retorted hotly, 'for my good money.
I would rather bear a severe pain than waste money on such a foolish

The sun was low by the time Slimak had finished his last bit of
harrowing near the highroad. At the moment when he stopped he heard the
new cow low. Her voice pleased him and softened his heart a little.

'Three cows is more than two,' he thought, 'people will respect me
more. But the money... ah well, it's all my own fault!'

He remembered how many times he had said that he must have another cow
and that field, and had boasted to his wife that people had encouraged
him to carve his own farm implements, because he was so clever at it.

She had listened patiently for two or three years; now at last she took
things into her own hands and told him to buy the cow and rent the
field at once. Merciful Jesu! what a hard woman! What would she drive
him to next? He would really have to put up sheds and make farm carts!

Intelligent and even ingenious as Slimak was, he never dared to do
anything fresh unless driven to it. He understood his farm work
thoroughly, he could even mend the thrashing-machine at the
manor-house, and he kept everything in his head, beginning with the
rotation of crops on his land. Yet his mind lacked that fine thread
which joins the project to the accomplishment. Instead of this the
sense of obedience was very strongly developed in him. The squire, the
priest, the Wojt, his wife were all sent from God. He used to say:

'A peasant is in the world to carry out orders.'

The sun was sinking behind the hill crest when he drove his horses on
to the highroad, and he was pondering on how he would begin his
bargaining with Grochowski when he heard a guttural voice behind him,
'Heh! heh!'

Two men were standing on the highroad, one was grey-headed and
clean-shaven, and wore a German peaked cap, the other young and tall,
with a beard and a Polish cap. A two-horse vehicle was drawn up a
little farther back.

'Is that your field?' the bearded man asked in an unpleasant voice.

'Stop, Fritz,' the elder interrupted him.

'What am I to stop for?' the other said angrily.

'Stop! Is this your land, gospodarz?' the grey-haired man asked very

'Of course it's mine, who else should it belong to?'

Stasiek came running up from the field at that moment and looked at the
strangers with a mixture of distrust and admiration.

'And is that your field?' the bearded one repeated.

'Stop, Fritz! Is it your field, gospodarz?' the old man corrected him.

'It's not mine; it belongs to the manor.'

'And whose is the hill with the pine?'

'Stop, Fritz...'

'Oh well, if you are going to interrupt all the time, father....'

'Stop... is the hill yours, gospodarz?'

'It's mine; no one else's.'

'There you are, Fritz,' the old man said in German; 'that's the very
place for Wilhelm's windmill.'

'The reason why Wilhelm has not yet put up a windmill is not that there
are no hills, but that he is a lazy fellow.'

'Don't be disagreeable, Fritz! Then those fields beyond the highroad
and the ravines are not yours, gospodarz?'

'How should they be, when they belong to the manor?'

'Oh yes,' the bearded one interrupted impatiently; 'everyone knows that
he sits here in the manor-fields like a hole in a bridge. The devil
take the whole business.'

'Wait, Fritz! Do the manor-fields surround you on all sides,

'Of course.'

'Well, that will do,' said the younger man, drawing his father towards
the carriage.

'God bless you, gospodarz,' said the elder, touching his cap.

'What a gossip you are, father! Wilhelm will never do anything; you may
find him ever so many hills.'

'What do they want, daddy?' Stasiek asked suddenly.

'Ah, yes! true!'

Slimak was roused: 'Heh, sir!'

The older man looked round.

'What are you asking me all those questions for?'

'Because it pleases us to do so,' the younger man answered, pushing his
father into the carriage.

'Farewell! we shall meet again!' cried the old man.

The carriage rolled away.

'What a crew they are on the highroad to-day, it's like a fair!' said

'But who are those people, daddy?'

'Those? They must be Germans from Wolka, twelve miles from here.'

'Why did they ask so many questions about your land?'

'They are not the only ones to do that, child. This country pleases
people so much that they come over here from a long way off; they come
as far as the pine hill and then they go away again. That is all I know
about them.'

He turned the horses homeward and was already forgetting the Germans.
The cow and the field were engaging all his thoughts. Supposing he
bought her! he would be able to manure the ground better, and he might
even pay an old man to come to the cottage for the winter and teach his
boys to read and write. What would the other peasants say to that? It
would greatly improve his position; he would have a better place in
church and at the inn, and with greater prosperity he would be able to
take more rest.

Oh, for more rest! Slimak had never known hunger or cold, he had a good
home and human affection, and he would have been quite happy if only
his bones had not ached so much, and if he could have lain down or sat
still to his heart's content.


Returning to the courtyard, Slimak let Maciek take the horses. He
looked at the cow, which was tied to the fence. Despite the falling
darkness he could see that she was a beautiful creature; she was white
with black patches, had a small head, short horns and a large udder. He
examined her and admitted that neither of his cows were as fine as this

He thought of leading her round the yard, but he suddenly felt as if he
could not move another step, his arms seemed to be dropping from their
joints and his legs were sinking. Until sunset a man can go on
harrowing, but after sunset it is no good trying to do anything more.
So he patted the cow instead of leading her about. She seemed to
understand the situation, for she turned her head towards him and
touched his hand with her wet mouth. Slimak was so overcome with
emotion that he very nearly kissed her, as if she were a human being.

'I must buy her,' he muttered, forgetting even his tiredness.

The gospodyni stood in the door with a pail of dishwater for the

'Maciek,' she called, 'when the cow has had a drink, lead her to the
cowshed. The Soltys will stay the night; the cow can't be left out of

'Well, what next?' asked Slimak.

'What has to be, has to be,' she replied. 'He wants the thirty-five
roubles and the silver rouble for the halter - but,' she continued after
a pause, 'truth is truth, she is worth it. I milked her, and though she
had been on the road, she gave more milk than Lysa.'

'Have you asked him whether he won't come down a bit?'

The peasant again felt the weariness in all his limbs. Good God! how
many hours of sleep would have to be sacrificed, before he could make
another thirty-five roubles!

'Not likely! It's something that he will sell her to us at all; he
keeps on saying he promised her to Gryb.'

Slimak scratched his head.

'Come, Josef, be friendly and drink vodka with him, then perhaps the
Lord Jesus will give him reflection. But keep looking at me, and don't
talk too much; you will see, it will turn out all right.'

Maciek led the cow to the shed; she looked about and whisked her tail
so heartily that Slimak could not take his eyes off her.

'It's God's will,' he murmured. 'I'll bargain for her.'

He crossed himself at the door, but his heart was trembling in
anticipation of all the difficulties.

His guest was sitting by the fire and admonishing Magda in fatherly
fashion to be faithful and obedient to her master and mistress.

'If they order you into the water - jump into the water; if they order
you into the fire - go into the fire; and if the mistress gives you a
good hiding, kiss her hand and thank her, for I tell you: sacred is the
hand that strikes....'

As he said this the red light of the fire fell upon him; he had raised
his hand and looked like a preacher.

Magda fancied that the trembling shadow on the wall was repeating:
'Sacred is the hand that strikes!'

She wept copiously; she felt she was listening to a beautiful sermon,
but at the same time blue stripes seemed to be swelling on her back at
his words. Yet she listened without fear or regret, only with dim
gratitude, mingled with recollections of her childhood.

The door opened and Slimak said:

'The Lord be praised.'

'In all eternity,' answered Grochowski. When he stood up, his head
nearly touched the ceiling.

'May God repay you, Soltys, for coming to us,' said Slimak, shaking his

'May God repay you for your kindness in receiving me.'

'And say at once, should you be uncomfortable.'

'Eh! I'm not half so comfortable at home, and it's not only to me but
also to the cow that you are giving hospitality.'

'Praise God that you are satisfied.'

'I am doubly satisfied, because I see how well you are treating Magda.
Magda! fall at your master's feet at once, for your father could not
treat you better. And you, neighbour, don't spare the strap.'

'She's not a bad girl,' said Slimak.

Sobbing heartily the girl fell first at her uncle's feet, then at the
gospodarz's, and then escaped into the passage. She hugged herself and
still emitted great sobs; but her eyes were dry. She began calling
softly in a mournful voice: 'Pig! pig! pig!' But the pigs had turned in
for the night. Instead Jendrek and Stasiek with the dog Burek emerged
from the twilight. Jendrek wanted to push her over, but she gave him a
punch in the eye. The boys seized her by the arms, Burek followed, and
shrieking and barking and inextricably entwined so that one could not
tell which was child and which was dog, all four melted into the mists
that were hanging over the meadows.

Sitting by the stove, the two gospodarze were talking.

'How is it you are getting rid of the cow?'

'You see, it's like this. That cow is not mine, it belongs to Magda,
but my wife says she doesn't care about looking after somebody else's
cow, and the shed is too small for ours as it is. I don't pay much
attention to her usually, but it happens that there is a bit of land to
be sold adjoining Magda's. Komara, to whom it belonged, has drunk
himself to death. So I am thinking: I will sell the cow and buy the
girl another acre - land is land.'

'That's true!' sighed Slimak.

'And as there will be new servituty, the girl will get even more.'

'How is that?' Slimak became interested.

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Online LibraryVariousSelected Polish Tales → online text (page 2 of 22)