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become a gentleman when the railway was finished, and that he, Maciek,
would then wait at table, and perhaps get married. Then he crossed
himself for having such reckless ideas. How could a poor fellow like
him think of marrying? Who would have him? Probably not even Zoska,
although she was wrong in the head and had a child.

This was a memorable Sunday for Slimak and his wife. She had bought a
silk kerchief at a stall, given twenty kopeks to the beggars, and sat
down in the front pew, where Grybina and Lukasiakowa had at once made
room for her. As for Slimak, everyone had something to say to him. The
publican reproached him for spoiling the prices for the Jews, the
organist reminded him that it would be well to pay for an extra Mass
for the souls of the departed, even the policeman saluted him, and the
priest urged him to keep bees: 'You might come round to the Vicarage,
now that you have money and spare time, and perhaps buy a few hives. It
does no harm to remember God in one's prosperity and keep bees and give
wax to the Church.'

Gryb came up with an unpleasant smile. 'Surely, Slimak, you will treat
everybody all round to-day, since you've been so successful?'

'You don't treat the village when you have made a good bargain, neither
shall I,' Slimak snubbed him.

'That's not surprising, since I don't make as much profit on a cow as
you make on a chicken.'

'All the same, you're richer than other people.'

'There you're right,' Wisniewski supported Slimak, asking him for the
loan of a couple of roubles at the same time. But when Slimak refused,
he complained of his arrogance.

Maciek did not get much comfort out of the money given him for boots.
He stood humbly at the back of the church, so that the Lord should not
see his torn sukmana. Then the beggars reminded him that he never gave
them anything. He went to the public-house to get change.

'How about my money, Pan Maciek?' said the publican.

'What money?'

'Have you forgotten? You owe me two roubles since Christmas'

Maciek swore at him. 'Everybody knows that one can only get a drink
from you for cash.'

'That's true on the whole. But when you were tipsy at Christmas, you
embraced and kissed me so many times, I couldn't help myself and gave
you credit.'

'Have you got witnesses?' Maciek said sharply. 'I tell you, old Jew,
you won't take me in.'

The publican reflected for a moment.

'I have no witnesses,' he said, 'therefore I will never mention the
matter to you again. Since you swear to me here in the presence of
other people, that you did not kiss me and beg for credit, I make you a
present of your debt, but it's a shame,' the publican added, spitting,
'that a man working for such a respectable gospodarz as Slimak, should
cheat a poor Jew. Don't ever set foot in my inn again!'

The labourer hesitated. Did he really owe that money?

'Well,' he said, 'since you say I owe you the money, I will give it
you. But take care God does not punish you if you are wronging me.' In
his heart, however, he doubted whether God would ever punish any one on
account of such a low creature as he was.

He was just leaving the inn sadly, when a band of Galician harvesters
came in. They sat down at the table, discussing the profits that would
be made from the building of the new railway.

Maciek went up to them, and seeing that their appearance was not much
less ragged than his own, he asked if it was true that there were
railroads[1] in the world? 'No one,' he said,'would have iron enough to
cover roads, not even the government.' The labourers laughed, but one,
a huge fellow with a soldier's cap, said: 'What is there to laugh at?
Of course a clodhopper does not know what a railway is. Sit down,
brother, and I'll tell you all about it, but let's have a bottle of

[Footnote 1: The Polish word for 'railway' is 'iron road'.]

Before Maciek had decided, the publican had brought the vodka.

'Why shouldn't he have vodka?' he said, 'he is a good-natured fellow,
he has stood treat before.'

What happened afterwards, Maciek did not clearly remember. He thought
that some one told him how fast an engine goes, and that some one else
shouted, he ought to buy boots. Later on he was seized by his arms and
legs and carried to the stable. One thing was certain, he returned
without a penny. Slimakowa would not look at him, and Slimak said: 'You
are hopeless, Maciek, you'll never get on, for the devil always leads
you into bad company.'

So it happened that Maciek went without new boots, but a few weeks
later he acquired a possession he had never dreamt of.

It was a rainy September evening; the more the day declined, the
heavier became the layers of clouds. Lower and lower they descended,
torn and gloomy. Forest, hill, and valley, even the fence dissolved
gradually into the grey veil. The heavy, persistent rain penetrated
everything; the ground was full of it, soaked through like kneaded
dough; the road was full of it, running with yellow streams; the yard,
where it stood in large puddles, was full of it. Roofs and walls were
dripping, the animals' skins and even human souls were saturated with

Everybody in the gospodarstwo was thinking vaguely of supper, but no
one was in the mood for it. The gospodarz yawned, the gospodyni was
cross, the boys were sleepy, Magda did even less than usual. They
looked at the fire, where the potatoes were slowly boiling, at the
door, to watch Maciek come in, or at the window, where the raindrops
splashed, falling from the higher, the lower, and the lowest clouds,
from the thatch, from the fading leaves of the trees, and from the
window frames. When all these splashes mingled into one, they sounded
like approaching footfalls. Then the cottage door creaked. 'Maciek,'
muttered the gospodarz. But Maciek did not appear.

A hand was groping along the passage wall.

'What's the matter with him, has he gone blind?' impatiently exclaimed
the gospodyni, and opened the door.

Something which was not Maciek was standing in the passage, a shapeless
figure, not tall, but bulky. It was wrapped in a soaking wet shawl.
Slimakowa stepped back for a moment, but when the firelight fell into
the passage, she discerned a human face in the opening of the shawl,
copper-coloured, with a broad nose and slanting eyes that were hardly
visible under the swollen eyelids.

'The Lord be praised,' said a hoarse voice.

'You, Zoska?' asked the astonished gospodyni.

'It is I.'

'Come in quickly, you are letting all the damp into the room.'

The new-comer stepped forward, but stood still, irresolutely. She held
a child in her arms whose face was as white as chalk, with blue lips;
she drew out one of its arms; it looked like a stick.

'What are you doing out in weather like this?' asked Slimak.

'I'm going after a place.' She looked round, and decided to crouch down
on the floor, near the wall. 'They say in the village that you have a
lot of money now; I thought you might want a girl.'

'We don't want a girl, there is not even enough for Magda to do. Why
are you out of a place?'

'I've been harvesting in the summer, but now no one will take me in
with the child. If I were alone I could get along.'

Maciek came in, and not being aware of Zoska's presence, started on
seeing a crouching form on the floor.

'What do you want?' he asked.

'I thought Slimak might take me on, but he doesn't want me with the

'Oh Lord!' sighed the man, moved by the sight of poverty greater than
his own.

'Why, Maciek, that sounds as if you had a bad conscience,' said the
gospodyni disagreeably.

'It makes one feel bad, to see such wretchedness,' he murmured.

'The man whose fault it is would feel it most!'

'It isn't my fault, but I'm sorry for them all the same.'

'Why don't you take the child, then, if you are so sorry?' sneered
Slimakowa, 'you'll give him the child, Zoska, won't you? Is it a boy?'

'A girl,' whispered Zoska, with her eyes fixed on Maciek, 'she is two
years old... yes, he can have her, if he likes.'

'She'd be a deal of trouble to me,' muttered the labourer, 'all the
same, it's a pity.'

'Take her,' repeated Zoska, 'Slimak is rich, you are rich....'

'Oh yes, Maciek is rich,' laughed Slimakowa, 'he drinks through six
roubles in one Sunday.'

'If you can drink through six roubles, you can take her,' Zoska cried
vehemently, pulling the child out of the shawl and laying it on the
floor. It looked frightened, but did not utter a sound.

'Shut up, Jagna, and don't talk nonsense,' said Slimak. Zoska stood up
and stretched herself.

'Now I shall be easy for once,' she said, 'I've often thought I'd like
to throw her away into a ditch, but you may as well have her. Mind you
look after her properly! If I come back and don't find her, I'll
scratch out your eyes.'

'You are crazy,' said Slimak, 'cross yourself.'

'I won't cross myself, I'll go away....'

'Don't be a fool, and sit down to supper,' angrily cried the gospodyni.
She took the saucepan off so impetuously, that the hot ashes flew all
over the stove, and one touched Zoska's bare feet.

'Fire!... fire!' she shouted, and escaped from the room, 'the cottage
is on fire, everything is on fire!'

She staggered out like a drunken person, and they could hear her voice
farther and farther off, shouting 'Fire!' until the rain drowned it.

'Run, Maciek, and bring her back,' cried Slimakowa. But Maciek did not

'You can't send a man after a mad woman on a night like this,' said

'Well, what am I to do with this dog's child? Do you think I shall feed

'I dare say you won't throw her over the fence. You needn't worry,
Zoska will come back for her.'

'I don't want her here for the night.'

'Then what are you going to do with her?' said Slimak, getting angry.

'I'll take her to the stable,' Maciek said in a low voice, lifting the
child up awkwardly. He sat down on the bench with it and rocked it
gently on his knees. There was silence in the room. Presently Magda,
Jendrek, and Stasiek emerged from their corner and stood by Maciek,
looking at the little creature.

'She is as thin as a lath,' whispered Magda.

'She doesn't move or look at us,' remarked Jendrek.

'You must feed her from a rag,' advised Magda, 'I will find you a clean

'Sit down to supper,' ordered Slimakowa, but her voice sounded less
angry. She looked at the child, first from a distance, then she bent
over it and touched its drawn yellow skin.

'That bitch of a mother!' she murmured, 'Magda, put a little milk in a
saucer, and you, Maciek, sit down to supper.'

'Let Magda sit down, I'll feed her myself.'

'Feed her!' cried Magda, 'he doesn't even know how to hold her.' She
tried to take the child from him.

'Don't pull her to pieces,' said the gospodyni, 'pour out the milk and
let Maciek feed her, if he is so keen on it.'

The way in which Maciek performed his task elicited much advice from
Magda. 'He has poured the milk all over her's running on to
the floor...why do you stick the rag into her nose?'

Although he felt that he was making a bad nurse, Maciek would not let
the child out of his hands. He hastily ate a little soup, left the
rest, and went to his night-quarters in the stable, sheltering the
child under his sukmana. When he entered, one of the horses neighed,
and the other turned his head and sniffed at the child in the darkness.

'That's right, greet the new stable-boy who can't even hold a whip,'
laughed Maciek.

The rain continued to fall. When Slimak looked out later on, the stable
door was shut, and he fancied he could hear Maciek snoring.

He returned into the room.

'Are they all right in there?' asked his wife.

'They are asleep,' he replied, and bolted the door.

The cocks had crowed midnight, the dog had barked his answer and
squeezed under the cart for shelter, everybody was asleep. Then the
stable door creaked, and a shadow stole out, moved along the walls and
disappeared into the cowshed. It was Maciek. He drew the whimpering
child from under his sukmana and put its mouth to the cow's udder.

'Suck, little one,' he whispered, 'suck the cow, because your mother
has left you.'

A few moments later smacking sounds were heard.

And the rain continued to drip...drip...drip, monotonously.


The announcement that the railway was to be built in the spring caused
a great stir in the village. The strangers who went about buying land
from the peasants were the sole topic of conversation at the
spinning-wheels on winter evenings. One poor peasant had sold his
barren gravel hill, and had been able to purchase ten acres of the best
land with the proceeds.

The squire and his wife had returned in December, and it was rumoured
that they were going to sell the property. The squire was playing the
American organ all day long, as usual, and only laughed when the people
timidly asked him whether there was any truth in the report. It was the
lady who had told her maid in the evening how gay the life in Warsaw
would be; an hour later the bailiff's clerk, who was the maid's
sweetheart, knew of it; early the next morning the clerk repeated it to
the bailiff and to the foreman as a great secret, and by the afternoon
all the employees and labourers were discussing the great secret. In
the evening it had reached the inn, and then rapidly spread into the
cottages and to the small town.

The power of the little word 'Sale' was truly marvellous.

It made the farm labourers careless in their work and the bailiff give
notice at New Year; it made the mute hard-working animals grow lean,
the sheaves disappear from the barn and the corn from the granary; it
made off with the reserve cart-wheels and harnesses, pulled the
padlocks off the buildings, took planks out of the fences, and on dark
nights it swallowed up now a chicken, now even a sheep or a small pig,
and sent the servants to the public-house every night.

A great, a sonorous word! It sounded far and wide, and from the little
town came the trades people, presenting their bills. It was written on
the face of every man, in the sad eyes of the neglected beasts, on all
the doors and on the broken window-panes, plastered up with paper.
There were only two people who pretended not to hear it, the gentleman
who played the American organ and the lady who dreamt of going to
Warsaw. When the neighbours asked them, he shrugged his shoulders, and
she sighed and said: 'We should like to sell, it's dull living in the
country, but my father in Warsaw has not yet had an offer.'

Slimak, who often went to work at the manor, had also heard the rumour,
but he did not believe it. When he met the squire he would look at him
and think: 'He can't help being as he is, but if such a misfortune
should befall him, I should be grieved for him. They have been settled
at the manor from father to son; half the churchyard is full of them,
they have all grown up here. Even a stone would fret if it were moved
from such a place, let alone a man. Surely, he can't be bankrupt like
other noblemen? It's well known that he has money.'

The peasant judged his squire by himself. He did not know what it meant
to have a young wife who was bored in the country.

While Slimak put his trust in the squire's unruffled manner,
cogitations were going on at the inn under the guidance of Josel, the

One morning, half-way through January, old Sobieska burst into the
cottage. Although the winter sun had not yet begun to look round the
world, the old woman was flushed, and her eyes looked bloodshot. Her
lean chest was insufficiently covered by a sheepskin as old as herself
and a torn chemise.

'Here!...give me some vodka and I'll give you a little bit of news,'
she called out. Slimak was just going off to thresh, but he sat down
again and asked his wife to bring the vodka, for he knew that the old
woman usually knew what she was talking about.

She drank a large glassful, stamped her foot, gurgled 'Oo-ah!', wiped
her mouth and said: 'I say! the squire is going to sell everything.'

The thought of his field crossed Slimak's mind and made his blood run
cold, but he answered calmly: 'Gossip!'

'Gossip?' the old woman hiccoughed, 'I tell you, it's gospel truth, and
I'll tell you more: the richer gospodarze are settling with Josel and
Gryb to buy the whole estate and the whole village from the squire, so
help me God!'

'How can they settle that without me?'

'Because they want to keep you out. They say you will be better off as
it is, because you will be nearer to the station, and that you have
already made a lot of money by spoiling other people's business.'

She drained another glass and would have said more, but was suddenly
overcome, and had to be carried out of the room by Slimak.

He and his wife consulted for the rest of the day what would be the
best thing to do under the circumstances. Towards evening he put on his
new sukmana lined with sheepskin and went to the inn.

Gryb and Lukasiak were sitting at the table. By the light of the two
tallow candles they looked like two huge boundary-stones in their grey
clothes. Josel stood behind the bar in a dirty jersey with black
stripes. He had a sharp nose, pointed beard, pointed curls, and wore a
peaked cap; there was something pointed also in his look.

'The Lord be praised,' said Slimak.

'In Eternity,' Josel answered indifferently.

'What are the gospodarze drinking?'

'Tea,' the innkeeper replied.

'Then I will have tea too, but let it be as black as pitch, and with
plenty of arrac.'

'Have you come to drink tea with us?' Josel taunted him.

'No,' said Slimak, slowly sitting down, 'I've come to find out....'

'What old Sobieska meant,' finished the innkeeper in an undertone.

'How about this business? is it true that you are buying land from the
squire?' asked Slimak.

The two gospodarze exchanged glances with Josel, who smiled. After a
pause Lukasiak replied:

'Oh, we are talking of it for want of something better to do, but who
would have the money for such a big undertaking?'

'You two between you could buy it!'

'Perhaps we may, but it would be for ourselves and those living in the

'What about me?'

'You don't take us into your confidence about your business affairs, so
mind you keep out of ours.'

'It's not only your affair, but concerns the whole village.'

'No, it's nobody's but mine,' snapped Gryb.

'It's mine just as much.'

'That is not so!' Gryb struck the table with his fist: if I don't like
a man, he shan't buy, and there's an end of it.'

The publican smiled. Seeing that Slimak was getting pale with anger,
Lukasiak took Gryb by the arm.

'Let us go home, neighbour,' he said. 'What is the good of talking
about things that may never come off? Come along.'

Gryb looked at Josel and got up.

'So you are going to buy without me?' asked Slimak.

'You bought without us last summer.' They shook hands with the
innkeeper and took no notice of Slimak.

Josel looked after them until their footsteps could no longer be heard,
then, still smiling, he turned to Slimak.

'Do you see now, gospodarz, that it is a bad thing to take the bread
out of a Jew's mouth? I have lost fifty roubles through you and you
have made twenty-five, but you have bought a hundred roubles' worth of
trouble, for the whole village is against you.'

'They really mean to buy the squire's land without me?'

'Why shouldn't they? What do they care about your loss if they can

'Well...well,' muttered the peasant sadly.

'I,' said Josel, 'might perhaps be able to arrange the affair for you,
but what should I gain by it? You have never been well disposed towards
me, and you have already done me harm.'

'So you won't arrange it?'

'I might, but on my own terms.'

'What are they?'

'First of all you will give me back the fifty roubles. Secondly, you
will build a cottage on your land for my brother-in-law.'

'What for?'

'He will keep horses and drive people to and from the station.'

'And what am I to do with my horses?'

'You have your land.'

The gospodarz got up. 'Aren't you going to give me any tea?'

'I haven't any in the house.'

'Very well; I won't pay you fifty roubles, and I won't build a cottage
for your brother-in-law.'

'Do as you please.' Slimak left the inn, banging the door.

Josel turned his pointed nose and beard in his direction and smiled.

In the darkness Slimak collided with a labourer from the manor who
carried a sack of corn on his back; presently he saw one of the servant
girls hiding a goose under her sheepskin. When she recognized him she
ran behind the fence. But Josel continued to smile. He smiled, when he
paid the labourer a rouble for the corn, including the sack; he smiled,
when the girl handed over the goose and got a bottle of sour beer in
return; he smiled, when he listened to the gospodarze discussing the
purchase of the land, and he smiled when he paid old Gryb two roubles
per cent., and took two roubles from young Gryb for every ten he lent
him. His smile no more came off his face than his dirty jersey came off
his back.

The fire was out and the children were asleep when Slimak returned

'Well?' asked his wife, while he was undressing in the dark.

'This is a trick of Josel's. He drives the others like a team of oxen.'

'They won't let you in?'

'They won't, but I shall go to the squire about the field.'

'When are you going?'

'To-morrow, else it may be too late.'

To-morrow came; the day after came and went; a week passed, but Slimak
had not yet done anything. One day he said he must thresh for a corn
dealer, the other day that he had a pain inside.

As a matter of fact, he neither threshed nor had a pain inside; but
something held him back which peasants call being afraid, gentlemen
slackness, and scholars inertia.

He ate little, wandered round aimlessly, and often stood still in the
snow-covered field by the river, struggling with himself. Reason told
him that he ought to go to the manor and settle the matter, but another
power held him fast and whispered: 'Don't hurry, wait another day, it
will all come right somehow.'

'Josef, why don't you go to the squire?' his wife asked day after day.

One evening old Sobieska turned up again. She was suffering from
rheumatism, and required treatment with a 'thimbleful' of vodka which
loosened her tongue.

'It was like this,' she began: 'Gryb and Lukasiak went with Grochowski,
all three dressed as for a Corpus Christi procession. The squire
received them in the bailiff's office, and Gryb cleared his throat and
went for it. "We have heard, sir, that you are going to sell your
family estate. Every man has a right to sell, and the other to buy. But
it would be a pity to allow the land which your forefathers possessed,
and which we peasants have cultivated, to fall into the hands of
strangers who have no associations with old times. Therefore, sir, sell
the land to us." I tell you,'Sobieska continued, 'he talked for an
hour, like the priest in the pulpit; at last Lukasiak got stiff in the
back,[1] and they all burst out crying. Then they embraced the squire's
feet, and he took their heads between his hands[2] and...'

[Footnote 1: The peasants would stand bent all the time.]

[Footnote 2: A nobleman, in order to show goodwill to his subordinates,
slightly presses their heads between his hands.]

'Well, and are they buying?' Slimak interrupted impatiently.

'Why shouldn't they buy? Certainly they are buying. They are not yet
quite agreed as to the price, for the squire wants a hundred roubles an
acre, and the peasants are offering fifty; but they cried so much, and
talked so long about good feeling between peasants and landowners that
the gospodarze will add another ten, and the squire will let them off
the rest. Josel has told them to give that much and no more, and not to
be in a hurry, then they'll be sure to drive a good bargain. He's a
damned clever Jew! Since he has taken the matter in hand, people have
flocked to the inn as if the Holy Mother were working miracles there.'

'Is he still setting the others against me?'

'He is not actually setting them against you, but he puts in a word now
and then that you can no longer count as a gospodarz, since you have
taken to trading. The others are even more angry with you than he is;
they can't forget that you sold chickens at just double the price you
bought them for.'

The result of this news was that Slimak set out for the manor-house
early the next day, and returned depressed in the afternoon. A large

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Online LibraryVariousSelected Polish Tales → online text (page 5 of 22)