Copyright
Various.

Selected Polish Tales online

. (page 4 of 22)
Online LibraryVariousSelected Polish Tales → online text (page 4 of 22)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


the better of the weak.

If people were to say to each other: Disgorge what you have swallowed,
the strong would drive off the weak and leave them to starve.'

'But if God has given the land to the squire, how can they begin to
distribute it to the people now?'

'They distribute it so that every one should get what is right for him,
not that he should take what he likes.'

His son's amazing views added a new worry to Slimak's mind.

'The rascal! listening to people of that sort! he'll never make a
peasant; it's a mercy he hasn't stolen yet.'

They were nearing the drive to the manor-house, and Slimak was walking
more and more slowly; Stasiek looked more and more frightened, Jendrek
alone kept his saucy air.

Through the dark branches of old lime-trees the roof and chimneys of
the manor became visible. Suddenly two shots rang out.

'They are shooting!' cried Jendrek excitedly, and ran forward. Stasiek
caught hold of his father's pocket. Slimak called Jendrek, who returned
sulkily. They were now on the terrace, where the manor-fields stretched
on either side. Lower down lay the village, still lower the field by
the river, in front of them was the manor, with the outbuildings,
enclosed by a railing.

'There! that's the manor-house,' said Slimak to Stasiek. 'Isn't it
beautiful?'

'Which one is it?'

'Why! the one with pillars in front.'

Another shot rang out, and they saw a man in fanciful sportsman's
dress.

'The horseman of yesterday,' cried Jendrek.

'Ah, that freak!' said Slimak, scrutinizing him with his head on one
side; 'he'll bring me bad luck about the field.'

'He has a splendid gun,' cried Jendrek; 'but what is he shooting?
There's nothing but sparrows here.'

'Perhaps he is shooting at us?' suggested Stasiek timidly.

'Why should he be shooting at us?' his father reassured him; 'shooting
at people isn't allowed. It's true there is no knowing what a lunatic
might do.'

The sportsman approached, loading his gun; the tattered remains of some
sparrows hung from his bag.

'The Lord be praised,' said Slimak, taking off his cap.

'How do you do, citizen?' replied the sportsman, touching his jockey
cap.

'What a lovely gun!' sighed Jendrek.

'Do you like it? Eh, wasn't it you who picked up my cap the other day?
I am in your debt; here you are.' He handed Jendrek a twenty-kopek
piece. 'Is that your father? Citizen, if you want to be friends with
me, do not bow so low, and cover your head. It is time that these
survivals of servitude should be forgotten; they can only do us both
harm. Cover yourself, I beg you.'

Slimak tried to do as he was told, but his hand refused obedience.

'I feel awkward, sir, standing before you with my cap on,' he said.

'Oh, hang hereditary social differences!' exclaimed the young man,
snatching the cap from Slimak's hands and putting it on his head.

'Hang it all!' thought the peasant, unable to follow the democrat's
intentions.

'What are you going to the manor for?' asked the latter. 'Have you come
on business with my brother-in-law?'

'We want to beg a favour of the squire' - Slimak refrained with
difficulty from bowing again - 'that he should let us rent the field
close to my property.'

'What for?'

'We've bought a new cow.'

'How much cattle have you?'

'The Lord Jesus possesses five tails in my gospodarstwo, two horses and
three cows, not counting the pigs.'

'And have you much land?'

'I wish to God I had, but I have only ten acres, and those are growing
more sterile every year.'

'That's because you don't understand agriculture. Ten acres is a large
property; in other countries several families live comfortably on that;
here it is not enough for one. But what can you expect if you sow
nothing but rye?'

'What else should I sow, sir? Wheat doesn't do very well.'

'Vegetables, my friend, that does the trick! The market gardeners near
Warsaw pay thirty or forty roubles an acre rent and do excellently
well.'

Slimak hung his head. He was much perturbed, for he had arrived at the
conclusion that the squire would not let him have the field, because he
had so much land already, or that he would ask him thirty or forty
roubles' rent. What other object could the young gentleman possibly
have for saying, such strange things?

They were approaching the entrance to the garden.

'I see my sister is in the garden; my brother-in-law is sure to be
about too. I will go and tell him of your business.'

Slimak bowed low, but inwardly he thought: 'May the pestilence take
him! He is impertinent to my wife, stirs up the boy, and puts my cap on
my head; but he wants to squeeze money out of me, all the same. I knew
he would bring me bad luck.'

Sounds of an American organ which the squire was playing came from the
house.

'Daddy, daddy, they are playing!' cried Stasiek in great excitement; he
was flushed, and trembled with emotion, even Jendrek was affected.
Slimak took off his cap and said a prayer for deliverance from the evil
spell of the young gentleman.

When the organ stopped, they watched this same young gentleman talking
to his sister in the garden.

'Look at the lady, dad,' said Jendrek; 'she is just like a horsefly,
yellow with black spots, and thin in the waist and fat at the end.'

The democrat was putting Slimak's case before his sister, and
complained of the signs of servility with which he met at every turn.
He said they spoilt his temper.

'But what can I do?' said the lady.

'Go up to them and give them courage.'

'I like that!' she said. 'I arranged a treat for our farm-labourers'
children to encourage them, and next day they plundered my peach trees.
Go to them? I've done that too. I once went into a cottage where a
child was ill, and my clothes smelt so strongly that I had to give them
to my maid. No, thank you!'

'All the same, I beg you to do something for these people.'

Their conversation had been in French while they were approaching the
railings.

'Oh, it's Slimak.' The lady raised her glasses. 'Well, my good man, my
brother wants me to do something for you. Have you got a daughter?'

'I haven't, my lady,' said Slimak, kissing the hem of her dress.

'That's a pity, I might have taught her to do beadwork. Perhaps I could
teach the boys to read?'

'They are wanted at home, my lady; the elder one is useful already, and
the younger one looks after the pigs in the fields.'

'Do something for them yourself,' she said to her brother in French.

'What are they plotting against me?' thought Slimak.

The squire now came out and joined the group. Slimak began bowing
again, Stasiek's eyes filled with tears, even Jendrek lost his
self-assurance. The conversation reverted into French, and the democrat
warmly supported Slimak's cause.

'All right, I'll let him have the field,' said the squire; 'then there
will be an end to the trespassing; besides, he is the most honest man
in the village.'

When Slimak's suspense had become so acute that he had thoughts of
returning home without having settled the business, the squire said:

'So you want me to let you have the field by the river?'

'If you will be so kind, sir.'

'And if you will kindly take off three roubles,'

Jendrek added quickly. Slimak's blood ran cold; the squire exchanged
glances with his wife.

'What does that mean?' he asked. 'From what am I to take off three
roubles?'

Involuntarily Slimak's hand reached for his belt, but he recollected
himself; he made up his mind in despair to tell the truth.

'If you please, sir, don't take any notice of that puppy; my wife has
been at me for not bargaining well, and she told me to get you to take
three roubles off the rent, and now this young scoundrel puts me to
shame.'

'Mother told me to look after you.'

Slimak became absolutely tongue-tied, and the party on the other side
of the railing were convulsed with laughter.

'Look,' said the squire in French, 'that is the peasant all over. He
won't allow you to speak a word to his wife, but he can't do anything
without her, and doesn't understand any business whatsoever without her
explanations.'

'Lovely!' laughed his wife, 'now, if you did as I tell you, we should
have left this dull place long ago and gone to Warsaw.'

'Don't make the peasant out to be an idiot,' remonstrated his
brother-in-law.

'No need for me to do that; he _is_ an idiot. Our peasants are all
muscle and stomach; they leave reason and energy to their wives. Slimak
is one of the most intelligent, yet I will bet you anything that I can
immediately give you a proof of his being a donkey. Josef,' he said,
turning to Slimak, 'your wife told you to drive a good bargain?'

'Certainly, sir, what is true is true.'

'Do you know what Lukasiak pays me yearly?'

'They say ten roubles.'

'Then you ought to pay twenty roubles for the two acres.'

'If you will be lenient, sir,' began Slimak.

'... and let me off three roubles,' completed the squire. Slimak looked
confused.

'Very good, I will let you off three roubles; you shall pay me
seventeen roubles yearly. Are you satisfied!'

Slimak bowed to the ground and thought: 'What is he up to? He is not
bargaining!'

'Now, Slimak,' continued the squire, 'I will make you another proposal.
Do you know what Gryb paid me for the two acres he bought?'

'Seventy roubles.'

'Just so, and he paid for the surveyor and the lawyer. I will sell you
those two acres for sixty roubles and let you off all expenses, so you
would gain a clear twenty roubles against Gryb's bargain, But I make
one condition, you must decide at once and without consulting your
wife; to-morrow my conditions wouldn't be the same.'

Slimak's eyes blazed; he fancied he saw quite clearly now that there
was a conspiracy against him.

'That's not a handsome thing to offer, sir,' he said, with a forced
smile; 'you yourself consult with the lady and the young gentleman.'
'There you are! Isn't he a finished idiot?'

His brother-in-law tapped Slimak on the shoulder. 'Agree to it, my
friend; you'll have the best of the bargain. Of course he agrees,' he
said, turning to the squire.

'Well, Josef, will you buy it? Do you agree to my conditions?'

'I'm not such a fool,' thought Slimak, and aloud: 'It wouldn't be fair
to buy it without my wife.'

'Very well, I'll let it to you. Give me your earnest-money and come for
the receipt to-morrow. There you have the peasant, my democrat!'

Slimak paid the ten roubles and glared at the retreating party.

'Ah! you'd like to cheat a peasant, but he has got too much sense! It's
true, then, what Grochowski said about the land-distribution. Sixty
roubles for a field worth seventy, indeed!'

All the same he could not quite get rid of the thought that it might
have been a straightforward offer. He felt hot all over and wanted to
shout or run after the squire. At that moment the young man hastily
turned back.

'Buy that field,' he said, quite out of breath; 'my brother-in-law
would still consent if you asked him.'

In an instant Slimak's distrust returned.

'No, sir; it wouldn't be fair.'

'Cattle!' murmured the democrat, and turned his back. The bargain had
disappeared.

'Let's go home, boys,' and under his breath: 'Damn the aristocracy!'
When they were nearing their home, the boys ran on ahead, for they were
hungry.

'What is this Jendrek tells me? They wanted to sell you the land for
sixty roubles?'

'That is so,' he replied, rather frightened; 'they are afraid of the
new land-distributions. They are clever too! They knew all about my
business beforehand, and the squire had set his brother-in-law on to
me.'

'What! that fellow who spoke to me by the river?'

'That same fool. He gave Jendrek twenty kopeks and put my cap on my
head, and he told me ten acres was a fortune.'

'A fortune? His brother-in-law has a thousand and says he hasn't
enough! You did quite right not to buy the field; there is something
shady about that business.'

But his wife's satisfaction did not completely reassure Slimak; he was
wretchedly in doubt. His dinner gave him no pleasure, and he strolled
about the house without knowing what to do. When his irritation had
reached its climax, a happy thought struck him.

'Come here, Jendrek,' he said, unbuckling his belt.

'Oh, daddy, don't,' wailed the boy, although he had been prepared for
the last two hours.

'You won't escape it this time; lie down on the bench. You've been
laughing at the young gentleman and even making fun of the squire.'

Stasiek, in tears, embraced his father's knees, Magda ran out of the
room, Jendrek howled.

'I tell you, lie down! I'll teach you to run about with that scoundrel
of a Jasiek!'

At that moment Slimakowa tapped at the window. 'Josef, come quick,
something has happened to the new cow, she's staggering.'

Slimak let go of Jendrek and ran to the cowshed. The three cows were
standing quietly chewing the cud.

'It has passed off,' said the woman; 'but I tell you a minute ago she
was staggering worse than you did yesterday.'

He examined the cow carefully, but could find nothing wrong with her.

Jendrek had meanwhile slipped away, his father's temper had cooled, and
the matter ended as usual on these occasions.




CHAPTER V


It was the height of summer. The squire and his wife had gone away, and
the villagers had forgotten all about them. New wool had begun to grow
on the shorn sheep.

The sun was so hot that the clouds fled from the sky into the woods,
and the ground protected itself with what it could find; with dust on
the highroads, grass in the meadows, and heavy crops in the fields.

But human beings had to toil their hardest at this time. At the manor
they were cutting clover and hoeing turnips; in the cottages the women
were piling up the potatoes, while the old women were gathering mallows
for cooling drinks and lime-blossoms against the ague. The priest spent
all his days tracking and taking swarms of bees; Josel, the innkeeper,
was making vinegar. The woods resounded with the voices of children
picking berries.

The corn was getting ripe, and Slimak began to cut the rye the day
after the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. He was in a hurry to
get the work done in two or three days, lest the corn should drop out
in the great heat, and also because he wanted to help with the
harvesting at the manor.

Usually he, Maciek, and Jendrek worked together, alternately cutting
and binding the sheaves. Slimakowa and Magda helped in the early
morning and in the afternoon.

On the first day, while the five were working together, and had reached
the top of the hill, Magda noticed some men showing against the dark
background of the wood, and drew Slimakowa's attention to them. They
all stopped work and looked.

'They must be peasants,' Maciek said; 'they are wearing white smocks.'

'They do not walk like peasants,' said Slimakowa.

'But they are wearing boots up to their knees,' said Slimak.

'Look! they are carrying poles,' Jendrek cried; 'and they are dragging
a rope after them.'

'Ah, they must be surveyors. What can they be after?' reflected Slimak.

'Surely, they are taking a fresh survey; now, Josef, aren't you glad
you did not buy that land?' asked his wife. They took up their work
again, but did not get on very fast, for they could not resist throwing
sidelong glances at the approaching men. It was now quite plain that
they were not peasants, for they wore white coats and had black ribbons
on their hats. Slimak's attention became so absorbed that he lagged
behind, in the place which Magda usually occupied, instead of being at
the head of the party. At last he cried:

'Jendrek, stop cutting; run and find out what they are doing, and if
they are really measuring for a new land-distribution.'

Jendrek was off in a moment, and had soon reached the men. He forgot to
come back. The little party watched him talk to the men for a few
moments, and then becoming busy with the poles.

'I say!' cried Slimakowa, 'he is quite one of the party! Just look, how
he is running along with the line, as if he had never done anything
else in his life. He has never seen a book except in the Jew's shop
window, and yet he can run better than any of them. I wish I had told
him to put on his boots; they will never take him for the son of a
gospodarz.'

She watched Jendrek with great pride until the party disappeared behind
the line of the hill.

'Something will come of this,' said Slimak, 'either good or bad.'

'Why should it be bad?' asked his wife; 'they may add to our land; what
do you think, Maciek?'

The farm labourer looked embarrassed when he was asked for his opinion,
and pondered until the perspiration flowed from his head.

'Why should it be good?' he said at last. 'When I was working for the
squire at Krzeszowie, and he went bankrupt, just such men as these came
and measured the land, and soon afterwards we had to pay a new tax. No
good ever comes of anything new.'

Jendrek returned towards sunset, quite out of breath. He called out to
his mother that the gentlemen wanted some milk, and had given him
twenty kopeks.

'Give them to your mother at once,' said Slimak; 'they are not for you,
but for the milk.'

Jendrek was almost in tears. 'Why should I give up my money? They say
they will pay for everything they have, and even want to buy butter and
fowls.'

'Are they traders?'

'Oh no, they are great gentlemen, and live in a tent and keep a cook.'

'Gipsies, I dare say!'

Slimakowa had run off at top speed, and now the men appeared,
perspiring, sunburnt, and dusty; nevertheless, they impressed Slimak
and Maciek so much with their grand manner that they took off their
caps.

'Which of you is the gospodarz?'

'I am.'

'How long have you lived here?'

'From my childhood.'

'And have you ever seen the river in flood?'

'I should think I had!'

'Do you remember how high the water rises?'

'Sometimes it overflows on to that meadow deep enough to drown a man.'

'Are you quite sure of that?'

'Everybody knows that. Those gaps in the hill have been scooped out by
the water.'

'The bridge will have to be sixty feet high.'

'Certainly,' said the elder of the two men. 'Can you let us have some
milk, gospodarz?'

'My wife is getting it ready, if it pleases the gentlemen to come.'

The whole party turned towards the cottage, for the drinking of milk by
such distinguished gentlemen was an important event; it was decided to
stop harvesting for the day.

Chairs and the cherrywood table had been placed in front of the
cottage. A rye loaf, butter, white cheese with caraway seeds, and a
bowl of buttermilk were in readiness.

'Well,' said the men, looking at each other in surprise, 'a nobleman
could not have received us better.'

They ate heartily, praised everything, and finally asked Slimakowa what
they owed her.

'May it be to the gentlemen's health!'

'But we cannot fleece you like this, gospodyni.'

'We don't take money for hospitality. Besides, you have already given
my boy as much as if he had been harvesting a whole day.'

'There!' whispered the younger man to the elder, 'isn't that like
Polish peasants?'

To Slimak they said: 'After such a reception we will promise to build
the station quite near to you.'

'I don't know what you mean?'

'We are going to build a railway.'

Slimak scratched his head.

'What makes you so doubtful?' asked the men.

'I'm thinking that this will turn out badly for us,' Slimak replied; 'I
shan't earn anything by driving.'

The men laughed. 'Don't be afraid, my friend, it will be a very good
thing for everybody, especially for you, as you will be near the
station. And first of all you will sell us your produce and drive us.
Let us begin at once, what do you want for your fowls?'

'I leave it to you, sir.'

'Twenty-five kopeks, then.'

Slimakowa looked at her husband. This was double the amount they had
usually taken. 'You can have them, sir,' she cried.

'That scoundrel of a Jew charged us fifty,' murmured the younger man.

They agreed to buy butter, cheese, crayfish, cucumber, and bread; the
younger man expressing surprise at the cheapness of everything, and the
elder boasting that he always knew how to drive a good bargain. When
they left, they paid Slimakowa sixteen paper roubles and half a silver
rouble, asking her if she was sure that she was not cheating herself.

'God forbid,' she replied. 'I wish I could sell every day at that
price.'

'You will, when we have built the railway.'

'May God bless you!' She made the sign of the cross over them, the farm
labourer knelt down, and Slimak took off his cap. They all accompanied
their guests as far as the ravines.

When they returned, Slimak set everyone to work in feverish haste.

'Jagna, get the butter ready; Maciek and Jendrek, go to the river for
the crayfish; Magda, take three score of the finest cucumbers, and
throw in an extra ten. Jesus Mary! Have we ever done business like
this! You will have to buy yourself a new silk kerchief, and a new
shirt for Jendrek.'

'Our luck has come,' said Slimakowa, 'and I must certainly buy a silk
kerchief, or else no one in the village will believe that we have made
so much money.'

'I don't quite like it that the new carriages will go without horses,'
said Slimak; 'but that can't be helped.'

When they took their produce to the engineers' encampment, they
received fresh orders, for there were more than a dozen men, who made
him their general purveyor. Slimak went round to the neighbouring
cottages and bought what he needed, making a penny profit on every
penny he spent, while his customers praised the cheapness of the
produce. After a week the party moved further off, and Slimak found
himself in possession of twenty-five roubles that seemed to have fallen
from the sky, not counting what he had earned for the hire of his
horses and cart, and payment for the days of labour he had lost. But
somehow the money made him feel ashamed.

'Do you know, Jagna,' he said, 'perhaps we ought to go after the
gentlemen and give them back their money.'

'Oh nonsense!' cried the woman, 'trading is always like that. What did
the Jew charge for the chickens? just double your price.'

'But it is the Jew's trade, and besides, he isn't a Christian.'

'Therefore he makes the greater profits. Come, Josef, the gentlemen did
not pay for the things only, but for the trouble you took.'

This, and the thought that everybody who came from Warsaw obviously had
much money to spend, reassured the peasant.

As he and the rest of the family were so much occupied with their new
duties, all the harvesting fell to Maciek's share. He had to go to the
hill from early dawn till late at night, and cut, bind, and shock the
sheaves single-handed. But in spite of his industry the work took
longer than usual, and Slimak hired old Sobieska to help him. She came
at six o'clock, armed with a bottle of 'remedy' for a wound in the leg,
did the work of two while she sang songs which made even Maciek blush,
until the afternoon, and then took her 'remedy'. The cure then pulled
her down so much that the scythe fell from her hand.

'Hey, gospodarz!' she would shout. 'You are raking in the money and
buying your wife silk handkerchiefs, but the poor farm labourers have
to creep on all fours. It's "Cut the corn, Sobieska and Maciek, and I
will brag about like a gentleman!" You will see, he will soon call
himself "Pan Slimaczinski."[1] He is the devil's own son, for ever and
ever. Amen.'

[Footnote 1: The ending _ski_ denotes nobility.]

She would fall into a furrow and sleep until sundown, though she was
paid for a full day's work. As she had a sharp tongue, Slimak had no
wish to offend her. When he haggled about the money, she would kiss his
hand and say: 'Why should you fall out with me, sir? Sell one chicken
more and you'll be all right.'

'Cheek always pays!' thought Maciek.

On the following Sunday, when everyone was ready to go to church,
Maciek sat down and sighed heavily.

'Why, Maciek, aren't you going to church?' asked Slimak, seeing that
something was amiss.

'How can I go to church? You would be ashamed of me.'

'What's the matter with you?'

'Nothing is the matter with me, but my feet keep coming through my
boots.'

'That's your own fault, why didn't you speak before? Your wages are
due, and I will give you six roubles.'

Maciek embraced his feet....

'But mind you buy the boots, and don't drink away the money.'

They all started; Slimak walked with his wife, Magda with the boys, and
Maciek by himself at a little distance. He dreamt that Slimak would


1 2 4 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22

Online LibraryVariousSelected Polish Tales → online text (page 4 of 22)