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of people was flocking towards the spot where Yakob was; they were
murmuring, pulling the soldiers by their cloaks. Women, children, and
old men pressed in a circle round him, gesticulating, shouting: 'It was

Words were lost in the chaos of sounds, faces became merely a dense
mass, above which fists were flung upwards like stones.

Yakob tripped about among the soldiers like a fawn in a cage, raised
and lowered his head, and clutched his rags; he could not shut his
quivering mouth, and from his breast came a cry like the sob of a

The crowd turned upon him with fists and nails; he hid his face in his
rags, stopped his ears with his fingers, and shook his head.

The prisoners had been dispatched, and it was Yakob's turn to be taken
before the officer in command of the battalion.

'Say that I...that I...' Yakob entreated his guard.

'What are you in such a hurry for?'

'Say that I...'

The soldiers were sitting round a camp-fire, piling up the faggots.
Soup was boiling in a cauldron.

'Say that I...' he begged again, standing in the thick smoke.

At last he was taken into the school-house.

The officer in command stood in the middle of the room with a cigarette
between his fingers.

'I...I...' groaned Yakob, already in the door. His dishevelled hair
made him look like a sea-urchin; his face was quite disfigured with
black marks of violence; behind his bleeding left ear still stuck the
cigarette. His swollen upper lip was drawn sideways and gave him the
expression of a ghastly smile. His eyes looked out helpless,
dispirited, from his swollen lids.

'What do you want to say?' asked the officer, without looking at him.
Something suddenly came over him.

'It was I,' he said hoarsely.

The soldier made his report.

'They gave me food,' Yakob said, 'and this muffler and breeches, and
they beat me.'

'It was you who showed them the way?'

'It was.'

'You did show them the way?'

He nodded.

'Did they beat you in the cottage?'

Yakob hesitated. 'In the cottage we were having supper.'

'They beat you afterwards, on the way?'

He again hesitated, and looked into the officer's eyes. They were
clear, calm eyes. The guard came a step nearer.

The officer looked down, turned towards the window and asked more
gently: 'You had supper together in the cottage. Then you went out with
them. Did they beat you on the way?'

He turned suddenly and looked at Yakob. The peasant stood, looked at
the grey snowflakes outside the window, and his face, partly black,
partly pallid, was wrinkled in deep folds.

'Well, what have you got to say?'

'It was I...' This interrogation made him alternately hot and cold.

'You who beat them, and not they who beat you?' laughed the officer.

'The meat is still there in the cottage, and here is what they gave
me,' he said, holding up the muffler and tobacco.

The officer threw his cigarette away and turned on his heel. Yakob's
eyes became dull, his arm with the muffler dropped.

The officer wrote an order. 'Take him away.' They passed the
schoolmaster and some women and soldiers in the passage.

'Well...well...' they whispered, leaning against the wall.

The guard made a sign with his hand. Yakob, behind him, looked dully
into the startled faces of the bystanders.

'How frightened he they have beaten frightened he
looks!' they murmured.

He put the muffler round his neck again, for he felt cold.

'That's him, that's him,' growled the crowd outside.

The manor-house was reached. The light from the numerous windows fell
upon horses and gun-carriages drawn up in the yard.

'What do you want?' cried the sentry to the crowd, pushing them back.

He nodded towards Yakob. 'Where is he to go?'

'That sort...' murmured the crowd. Yakob's guard delivered his order.
They stopped in the porch. The pillars threw long shadows which lost
themselves towards the fence and across the waves of the stream beyond,
in the darkness of the night.

The heat in the waiting-room was overpowering. This was the room where
the bailiff had so often given him his pay. The office no longer
existed. Soldiers were lying asleep everywhere.

They passed on into a brilliantly lighted room. The staff was quartered
there. The general took a few steps across the room, murmured something
and stood still in front of Yakob.

'Ah, that is the man?' he turned and looked at Yakob with his blue eyes
that shot glances quick as lightning from under bushy grey eyebrows.

'It was I,' ejaculated Yakob hoarsely.

'It was you who showed them the way?'

Yakob became calmer. He felt he would be able to make himself more
quickly understood here. 'It was.'

'You brought them here?'


He passed his hand over his hair and shrank into himself again. He
looked at the brilliant lights.

'Do you know what is the punishment for that?'

The general came a step nearer; Yakob felt overawed by the feeling of
strength and power that emanated from him. He was choking. Yes, he
understood and yet did not understand.'

'What have you got to say for yourself!'

'We had supper together...' he began, but stopped, for the general
frowned and eyed him coldly. Yakob looked towards the window and
listened to hear the sound of wind and waves. The general was still
looking at him, and so they stood for a moment which seemed an eternity
to Yakob, the man in the field-grey uniform who looked as if he had
been sculptured in stone, and the quailing, shrunken, shivering form,
covered with dirt and rags. Yakob felt as though a heavy weight were
resting on him. Then both silently looked down.

'Take him back to the battalion.'

The steely sound of the command moved something in the souls of the
soldiers, and took the enjoyment of their sleep from them.

They returned to the school-house. The crowd, as though following a
thief caught in the act, ran by their side again.

They found room for the old man in a shed, some one threw him a
blanket. Soldiers were sleeping in serried ranks. Their heavy breathing
mixed with the sound of wind and waves, and the cold blue light of the
moon embraced everything.

Yakob buried himself in the straw, looked out through a hole in the
boarding and wept bitterly.

'What are you crying for?' asked the sentry outside, and tapped his
shoulder with his gun.

Yakob did not answer.

'Thinking of your wife?' the soldier gossiped, walking up and down
outside the shed. 'You're old, what good is your wife to you?' The
soldier stopped and stretched his arms till the joints cracked.

'Or your children? Never mind, they'll get on in the world without a
helpless old man like you.'

Yakob was silent, and the soldier crouched down near him.

'Old man, you ought...'

'No...' tremblingly came from the inside.

'You see,' the soldier paced up and down again, 'you are thinking of
your cottage. I can understand that. But do you think the cottage will
be any the worse off for your death?'

The soldier's simple and dour words outside in the blue night, his talk
of Yakob's death, of his own death which might come at any moment,
slowly brought sleep to Yakob.

In the morning he awoke with a start. The sun was shining on the snow,
the mountains glittered like glass. The trees on the slopes were
covered with millions of shining crystals; freshness floated between
heaven and earth. Yakob stepped out of the shed, greeted the sentry and
sat down on the boards, blinking his eyes.

The air was fresh and cold, tiny atoms of hoarfrost were flying about.
Yakob felt the sun's warmth thawing his limbs, caressing him. He let
himself be absorbed into the pure, rosy morning.

Doors creaked, and voices rang out clear and fresh. Opposite to him a
squadron of Uhlans were waiting at the farrier's, who came out, black
as a charcoal-burner, and chatted with them. They were laughing, their
eyes shone. From inside the forge the hammer rang out like a bell.
Yakob held his head in his hand and listened. At each stroke he shut
his eyes. The soldiers brought him a cup of hot coffee; he drank it and
lighted his pipe.

The murmuring of the brook, punctuated by the hammer-strokes,
stimulated his thoughts till they became clearer, limpid as the stream.

'It was was I...' he silently confided to all the fresh voices
of the morning.

The guard again took him away with fixed bayonets. He knew where he was
going. They would go through the village and stop at the wall of the

The sky was becoming overcast, the beauty of the morning was waning.
They called at the school-house for orders. Yakob remained outside the
open window.

'I won't...' he heard a voice.

'Nor I...' another.

Yakob leant against the fence, supported his temples on his fists and
watched the snow-clouds and mists.

A feeling of immense, heavy weariness came over him, and made him limp.
He could see the ruins of the mill, the tumbled-down granaries, the
broken doors. The water trickled down the wheel; smoke and soot were
floating on the water, yet the water flowed on.

Guilty...not guilty.... What did it all matter?

'Do you hear?' he asked of the water. 'Do you hear?' he asked of his
wife and children and his little property.

They took him here and they took him there. They made him wait outside
houses, and he sat down on the steps as if he had never been used to
anything else. He picked up a dry branch and gently tapped the snow
with it and waited. He waited as in a dream, going round and round the
wish that it might all be over soon.

While he was waiting, the crowd amused themselves with shaking their
fists at him; he was thankful that his wife seemed to have gone away to
the town and did not see him.

At last his guard went off in a bad temper. A soldier on horseback
remained with him.

'Come on, old man,' he said, 'no one will have anything to do with it.'

Yakob glanced at him; the soldier and his horse seemed to be towering
above the cottages, above the trees of the park with their flocks of
circling crows. He looked into the far distance.

'It was I.'

'You're going begging, old man.'

Again they began their round, and behind them followed the miller's
wife and other women. His legs were giving way, as though they were
rushes. He took off his cap and gave a tired look in the direction of
his cottage.

At last they joined a detachment which was starting off on the old
road. They went as far as Gregor's cottage, then to the cross-roads,
and in single file down the path. From time to time isolated gunshots
rang out.

They sat down by the side of a ditch.

'We've got to finish this business,' said the sergeant, and scratched
his head. 'No one would come forward voluntarily... I have been

The soldiers looked embarrassed and drew away, looking at Yakob.

He hid his head between his knees, and his thoughts dwelt on
everything, sky, water, mountains, fire.

His heart was breaking; a terrible sweat stood on his brows.

Shots rang out.

A deep groan escaped from Yakob's breast, a groan like a winter-wind.
He sprang up, stood on the edge of the ditch, sighed with all the
strength of his old breast and fell like a branch.

Puffs of smoke rose from the ditch and from the forests.



[An incident during the early part of the World War, when the Russians,
retreating before the victorious Austro-German armies, destroyed




At the time when the bridges over the Vistula still existed, connecting
by stone and iron the banks of the town now split in two, I drove to
the opposite side of the river into the country to my abandoned home,
for I thought I might still succeed in transporting to the town the
rest of the articles I had left behind, and so preserve them from a
doubtful fate.

I was specially anxious to bring back the cases full of books that had
been early packed and duly placed in a garret. They included one part
of the library that had long ago been removed, but owing to their
considerable weight they had been passed over in the hurry of the first

The house had been locked up and entrusted to the sure care of Martin,
an old fellow bent half to the ground, who with his wife also kept an
eye on the rest of the buildings, the garden, and the forest.

When I arrived I found the whole of my wild, forgotten forest-world
absolutely changed and transformed into one great camp. But the empty
wood was moving like a living thing, like the menacing 'Birnam wood'
before the eyes of Macbeth. It was full of an army, with each of their
handsome big horses tied to a pine in the forest. Farther off across
the roots could be seen small grey tents stretched on logs. Most of the
exhausted blackened men were lying all over the ground and sleeping
among the quiet beasts. Along the peaceful, silky forest paths, in a
continuous line, like automobiles in the Monte Pincio park, stood small
field kitchens on wheels, gunpowder boxes, and carts.

At the foot of the forest, on the flowery meadow, unmown this year,
were feeding pretty Ukraine cattle driven from some distant place.
Quiet little sheep, not brought up in our country, were eating grass on
a neighbouring hillock.

Martin's bent figure was hastily coming along the road from the house,
making unintelligible signs. When he was quite close he explained in a
low discontented voice, and as if washing his hands of all
responsibility, that I had been robbed. 'I was going round,' he said,
'this very morning, as it was my duty to do. There was no one to be
seen. Now the whole forest is full of soldiers. They came, opened the
house, and stole absolutely everything. My wife came upon them as they
were going out!'

'What? Stole everything?' I asked.

Martin was silent a moment; at last he said: 'Well, for instance, the
samovar; absolutely everything!'

I found the front door, in fact, wide open, and in it Martin's wife,
with gloom depicted on her face. The floors were covered with articles
dragged out of the drawers in the rooms on the upper floor. In the
garrets scores of books in the most appalling disorder were scattered
from out of parcels and boxes. Unbound volumes had been shaken, so that
single sheets and maps were found in various places or not found at

I went into the veranda. In the green of the astonished garden, now
paling in the dusk, men were sleeping here and there. There was a
specially large swarm in the part of the garden where ripe raspberries
were growing. Nearer the house, under a shady d'Amarlis pear tree, four
soldiers were lying and playing at cards. They all had attached to
their caps masks to protect them from poison-gas with two thick glasses
for the eyes, and with this second great pair of eyes on them their
heads looked like those of certain worms. In the packs of cards I
recognized without trouble some that used to lie by our fire-place. I
went up to the soldiers and pointed out that they had plundered my
house, and that I missed several things, and was anxious to find them,
especially women's dresses not of use to any one there, and that I
wanted to be assured that no one would come into the house in
future - at least till I had packed afresh the damaged books and
collected what remained.

I could speak freely, for none of them so much as thought of
interrupting me. Then I was silent, whereupon the soldier lying nearest
raised his head - the movement put me in mind of a hydrostatic
balance - gave me a long look and said: 'What have we to do with your
books? We don't even understand your language!' Then, looking at me
amiably with his double pair of eyes, he took a bite of a half-ripe
pear as green as a cucumber.

'Nothing to be got here: you must go to an officer,' Martin advised, as
he stood a little to the side of me.

The officers had their quarters about a quarter of a mile away, in a
small house near the forest path. The mist passed off, and in the
darkness in the middle of the wood a number of fires shone. One could
hear a confused noise, unknown soldiers' songs, and mournful music. We
soon reached our destination. We were asked to go into the nearly empty
room, where there was a murmur of voices of soldiers; they were all
standing. At a long table, by the light of a small candle without a
candlestick, two men were writing something, and one was dipping in a
plate proofs of photographs. Some one asked if I felt any fear, and
when I hastened to reassure him entirely, he gave me a chair. Martin
stood, doubled up, at the door.

A moment later a young officer, informed by a soldier of my arrival,
came down from above, clapped his spurs together in a salute and
inquired what I wanted. When he heard my business his brow darkened and
he became severe. 'Till now we have had no instance of such an
occurrence,' he informed me with much dignity, and his voice sounded
sincere. 'Where is the place?' he asked. 'At the end of the wood?'

'Quite right,' I answered.

'Ah, then, it is not our soldiers,' he said with relief; 'there is a
detachment of machine gunners there, and they have no officers at all.'

He expressed a wish, in spite of the lateness of the hour, to examine
the damage personally with two other officers. They assured me that the
things were bound to be found, and punishment would fall on the guilty
under the severe military law.

We all walked back through the camp by a forest track which I had known
from childhood as well as the paths of my own garden. The mist had
thickened, the fires seemed veiled as with cobwebs. Everywhere around
horses were eating hay and scraping up the ground solid with pine-tree
roots. Songs ended in silence and began again farther off.

On the way I explained directly to the officers that my special object
was not to get back the things or to punish the thieves, and certainly
not according to 'the severe military law'. How was I to trace the
thieves? My watchman would certainly not recognize them, because he was
not familiar with shoulder straps, and would say that in that respect
all soldiers were alike. I was oniy afraid of further damage in the
house, its locks being rotten, and what I desired was that in case the
army stayed there, a guard should be appointed.

So we reached the house. Martin conducted the gentlemen through the
rooms, and by the light of a candle showed them the condition of
things. The officers, with obvious annoyance, discovered a 'veritable
pogrom'. They could not be expected to understand what the loss
incurred by the scattering of so many books meant to me; one of them
smelt of English 'Sweet Pea' perfume, like a bouquet of flowers. Yet
they clinked their spurs together, and as they went out they again
apologized for the injury done and appointed a sentry, who went on
guard at midnight.


Day came fall of clouds that hung right over the tops of the trees,
full of wind and cold, but dry - quite a genuine summer day.

Round the house from early morning soldiers were moving about,
mitigating the weariness of the man on guard. Now one, now another
wanted to see how the pillaged house looked. Quite simply they walked
through the open door into the interior, finishing what remained of the
unripe apples they had picked in the garden. One stood still on the
threshold, put his hand to his cap, bowed, and duly asked, 'if the lady
would allow?'

Then he entered, stooped, and picked up two books from the ground. 'May
I be permitted to take the liberty of asking to whom these books
belong? What is the reason for their exceedingly great number? Do they
serve a special department of study?' He made his inquiries in such a
stilted way that I was forced laboriously to keep my answers on the
same level. He owned he would be happy if I would agree that he should
help in the work, for he had not had a book in his hand for a year. He
therefore stayed in the garret and with the anxiety of a genuine
bibliomaniac collected volumes of similar size and shape, put together
scattered maps and tied up bundles. Martin looked distrustfully at this
assistant, and annoyance was depicted on the face of Martin's wife. In
front of the house one of the soldiers had brought cigarettes to the
man on guard. Another turned to him ironically: 'Well, under the
circumstances I suppose you are going to light one?'

'You are not allowed to light a cigarette on guard?'

'It wouldn't be allowed; but perhaps, as there is no officer to see

The speaker was a young, fair-haired, amiable boy, assistant to an
engine driver in some small town in Siberia. He was quite ready to
relate his history. He could not wonder sufficiently how it came to
pass that he was still alive. He had run away from the trenches at S.,
certain that he would die if he were not taken prisoner. The fire of
the enemy was concentrated on their entrenchment, so as to cut off all
chance of escape. Every one round him fell, and he was constantly
feeling himself to ascertain that he was not wounded. 'You see, lady,
when they turn their whole fire on one spot, you must get away; it
rains so thick that no one can stand it.'

'Well, and didn't you fire just as thick?'

He looked with amiable wonder. 'When we had nothing to fire?' he said

Well, somehow it all ended happily. But, then, the others, his
companions...ah, how dashing they had been, what fellows! An admirable,
glorious army, the S. Regiment! Almost everyone was killed; it was sad
to see them. Now they had to fill up the gaps with raw recruits; but it
was no longer the old army; there will never be such fighting again....
It will be hard to discipline them. They had fought continuously for a
year. A whole year in the war! They had been close to Drialdow, in
Lwow, even close to Cracow itself. 'Do you know Cracow, lady?'

'I do.'

'Well, then, just there, just five miles from Cracow. The bitter cold
of a windy day penetrated to our bones. To think that the town was only
five miles off!'

I went away to return to the packing of my books. At the door I noticed
a woman standing, a neighbour; she was frightened and timid.

'I suppose they have robbed you, lady?'

'They have.'

'And now they are at it in my place,' she said softly. 'Their cattle
have eaten up my whole meadow, and they are tearing up everything in my
kitchen-garden. I was looking this morning; not a cucumber left.
To-morrow they will begin mowing the oats; the officer gave me an
advance in money, and the rest he paid with note of hand. Is it true
that they are going to burn everything?'

'I don't know.'

The new watchman came up, young, black-eyed, a gloomy Siberian
villager. When he laughed, his teeth shone like claws.

'We have stolen nothing, but we are ordered to do penance,' he said
defiantly to Martin. 'Very well, we'll do it. It was worse in the
trenches - a great deal worse! Often we were so close to the enemy that
we could see them perfectly. We used to take off our caps, raise them
in the air; they fired. If they hit, then we waved a white
handkerchief: that meant they had made a hit. Later on they would show
their caps and we fired.'

'Are you from a distance?' Martin asked.

'From Siberia,' he answered, and turned his head. 'We were four
brothers all serving in the army; two still write to me, the fourth is
gone. Our father is an old man, and neither ploughs nor sows. He sold a
beautiful colt for 150 roubles, for what is the use of a horse when
there is no more farming? God! what a country this is,' he continued
with pity. 'With us in Siberia a farmer with no more than ten cows is
called poor. We are rich! We have land where wheat grows like anything.
Manure we cart away and burn; we've no use for it. Ah! Siberia!'

The woman, my neighbour, sat in silence. It was strange to her to hear
of this country as the Promised Land. When she had to go she said,
thoughtfully and nervously: 'Of course if I hadn't sold him the oats
they would have taken them. Even those two roubles on account were
better than that.'

I went upstairs again, and by evening the work of packing the books and
things was completed.

The soldier who loved books made elaborate remarks on them also to his
simple comrades. He spoke about the psychical aspect of fighting, the
physiology of heroic deeds, the resignation of those destined for
death, &c. He was a thoughtful man and unquestionably sensitive; but
all that he said had the stamp of oriental thought, systematically
arranged in advance and quite perfectly expressed at the moment, free
from the immediate naivete of elementary knowledge.

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Online LibraryVariousSelected Polish Tales → online text (page 21 of 22)