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bowl of sauerkraut presently made him willing to discourse.

'It was like this: I arrive at the manor, and when I look up I see that
all the windows of the large room on the ground floor are wide open.
God forbid! has some one died? I think to myself. I peep in and see
Mateus, the footman, in a white apron with brushes on his feet, skating
up and down like the boys on the ice. "The Lord be praised, Mateus,
what are you doing?" I say. "In Eternity, I am polishing the floor,"
says he; "we are going to have a big dance here to-night." "Is the
squire up yet?" "He is up, but the tailor is with him; he is trying on
a Crakovian costume. My lady is going to be a gipsy." "I want him to
sell me that field," I say. Mateus says: "Don't be a fool! how can the
squire think of your field, when he is amusing himself making up as a
Crakovian." So I go away from the window and stand about near the
kitchen for a bit. They are bustling like anything, the fire is burning
like a forge, and the butter is hissing. Presently Ignaz, the kitchen
boy, comes out, covered with blood, as if he had been stuck. "Ignaz,
for God's sake, what have you been doing?" I ask. "I haven't been doing
anything; it's the cook, he's been boxing my ears with a dead duck."
"The Lord be praised it is not your blood. Tell me where I can find the
squire." "Wait here," he says, "they'll bring in the boar, and the
squire is sure to come and have a look at it." Ignaz runs off, and I
wait and wait, until the shivers run down my back. But still I wait.'

'Well, and did you see the squire?' Slimakowa asked impatiently.

'Of course I saw him.'

'Did you speak to him?'

'Rather!'

'What did you settle?'

'Well...ah...I told him I wanted to beg a favour of him about the
field, but he said, "Oh, leave me alone, I have no head for business
to-day."'

'And when will you go again?'

Slimak held up his hands: 'Perhaps to-morrow, or the day after, when
they have slept off their dance.'

That same day Maciek drove a sledge to the forest, taking with him an
axe, a bite of food, and 'Silly Zoska's' daughter. The mother had never
asked after her, and Maciek had mothered the child; he fed her, took
her to the stable with him at night and to his work in the day-time.

The child was so weak that it hardly ever uttered a sound. Every one,
especially Sobieska, had predicted her early death.

'She won't last a week.'...'She'll die tomorrow.'...'She's as good as
gone already.'

But she had lived through the week and longer, and even when she had
been taken for dead once, she opened her tired eyes to the world again.
Maciek paid no attention to these prognostications. 'Never fear,' he
said, 'nothing will happen to her.' He continued to feed her in the
cowshed after dark.

'What makes you take trouble about that wretched child, Maciek?'
Slimakowa would say; 'if you talked to her about the Blessed Bible
itself she would take no notice; she's dreadfully stupid, I never saw
such a noodle in all my life.'

'She doesn't talk, because she has sense,' said Maciek; 'when she
begins to talk she will be as wise as an old man.'

That was because Maciek was in the habit of talking to her about his
work, whatever he might be doing, manuring, threshing, or patching his
clothes.

To-day he was taking her with him to the forest, tied to the sledge,
and wrapt in the remnants of his old sheepskin and a shawl. Uphill and
downhill over the hummocks bumped the sledge, until they arrived on
level ground, where the slanting rays of the sun, endlessly reflected
from the snow-crystals, fell into their eyes. The child began to cry.

Maciek turned her sideways, scolding: 'Now then, I told you to shut
your eyes! No man, and if he were the bishop himself, can look at the
sun; it's God's lantern. At daybreak the Lord Jesus takes it into his
hand and has a look round his gospodarstwo. In the winter, when the
frost is hard, he takes a short cut and sleeps longer. But he makes up
for it in the summer, and looks all over the world till eight o'clock
at night. That's why one should be astir from daybreak till sunset. But
you may sleep longer, little one, for you aren't much use yet. Woa!'
They entered the forest. 'Here we are! this is the forest, and it
belongs to the squire. Slimak has bought a cartload of wood, and we
must get it home before the roads are too bad. Steady, lads!' They
stopped by a square pile of wood. Maciek untied the child and put her
in a sheltered place, took out a bottle of milk and put it to her lips.
'Drink it and get strong, there will be some work for you. The logs are
heavy, and you must lift them into the sledge. You don't want the milk?
Naughty girl! Call out when you want it.... A little child like that
makes things cheerful for a man,' he reflected. 'Formerly there never
was any one to open one's mouth to, now one can talk all the time. Now
watch how the work should be done. Jendrek would pull the logs about,
and get tired in no time and stop. But mind you take them from the top,
carefully, and lift them into the sledge, one by one like this. Never
be in a hurry, little one, or else the damned wood will tire you out.
It doesn't want to go on to the sledge, for it has sense, and knows
what to expect. We all prefer our own corner of the world, even if it
is a bad one. But to you and me it's all the same, we have no corner of
our own; die here or die there, it makes no difference.' Now and then
he rested, or tucked the child up more closely.

Meanwhile, the sky had reddened, and a strong north-west wind sprang
up, saturated with moisture. The forest, held in its winter sleep,
slowly began to move and to talk. The green pine needles trembled, then
the branches and boughs began to sway and beckon to each other. The
tops, and finally the stems rocked forward and backward, as if they
contemplated starting on a march. It was as if their eternal fixedness
grieved them, and they were setting out in a tumultuous crowd to the
ends of the world. Sometimes they became motionless near the sledge, as
though they did not wish to betray their secret to a human being. Then
the tramp of countless feet, the march past of whole columns of the
right wing, could be heard distinctly; they approached, and passed at a
distance. The left wing followed; the snow creaked under their
footsteps, they were already in a line with the sledge. The middle
column, emboldened, began to call in mighty whispers. Then they halted
angrily, stood still in their places and seemed to roar: 'Go away! go
away, and do not hinder us!'

But Maciek was only a poor labourer, and though he was afraid of the
giants, and would gladly have made room for them, he could not leave
until he had loaded up his sledge. He did not rest now or rub his
frozen hands; he worked as fast as he could, so that the night and the
winter storms should not overtake him.

The sky grew darker and darker with clouds; mists rose in the forests
and froze into fine crystals which instantly covered Maciek's sukmana,
the child's shawl, and the horses' manes with a crackling crust. The
logs became so slippery that his hands could scarcely hold them; the
ground was like glass. He looked anxiously towards the setting sun: it
was dangerous to return with a heavy load when the roads were in that
condition. He crossed himself, put the child into the sledge, and
whipped up the horses. Maciek stood in fear of many things, but most of
all he feared the overturning of a sledge or cart, and being crushed
underneath.

When they were out of the wood the track became worse and worse. The
rough-hewn runners constantly sank into snow-drifts and the sledge
canted over, so that the poor man, trembling with fear and cold, had to
prop it up with all his strength. If his twisted foot gave way, there
was an end to him and the child.

From time to time the horses stopped dead, and Maciek ceased shouting.
Then a great silence spread round him, only the distant roar of the
forest, the whistling of the wind, and the whimpering of the child
could be heard.

'Woa!' he began again, and the horses tugged and slipped where they
stood, moved on a few steps, and stopped again.

'To Thy protection we flee, Holy Mother of God!' he whispered, took his
axe and cut into the smooth road in front of the horses.

It took him a long time to cover the short distance to the high road,
but when they got there, the horses refused to go on at all. The hill
in front of them was impassable. He sat down on the sledge, pondering
whether Slimak would come to his assistance, or leave him to his fate.
'He'll come for the horses; don't cry, little one, God won't forsake
us.' While he listened, it seemed to him as if the whistling of the
wind changed into the sound of bells. Was it his fancy? But the bells
never ceased; some were deep-toned and some high-toned; voices were
intermixed with them. They approached from behind like a swarm of bees
in the summer.

'What can it be?' said Maciek, and stood up.

Small flames shone in the distance. They disappeared among the juniper
bushes, and then flickered up again, now high, now low, coming nearer
and nearer, until a number of objects, running at full speed, could be
seen in the uncertain light of the flames. The tumult of voices
increased; Maciek heard the clattering of hoofs, the cracking of whips.

'Heh! stop...there's a hill there!'

'Look out! don't be crazy!'

'Stop the sledge, I shall get out!'

'No, go on!'

'Jesus Mary!'

'Have the musicians been spilt yet?'

'Not yet, but they will be.'

'Oh...la la!'

Maciek now understood that this was a sleigh race. The teams of
two-and four-horsed sleighs approached at a gallop, accompanied by
riders on horseback carrying torches. In the thick mist it looked as if
the procession appeared out of an abyss through a circular gate of
fire. They bore straight down upon the spot where Maciek and his sledge
had come to a standstill. Suddenly the first one stopped.

'Hey...what's that?'

'Something is in the way.'

'What is it?'

'A peasant with a cartload of wood.'

'Out of the way, dog. Throw him into the ditch!'

'Shut up! We'd better move him on.'

'That we will! We are going to move the peasant on. Out of your
sledges, gentlemen!'

Before Maciek had recovered from his astonishment, he was surrounded by
masked men in rich costumes with plumed hats, swords, guitars, or
brooms. They seized his sledge and himself, pushed them to the top of
the hill and down the other side on to level ground.

'Thank God!' thought the dazed man. 'If the devil hadn't led them this
way, I might have been here till the morning. They are fine fellows!'

'The ladies are afraid to drive down the hill,' some one shouted from
the distance.

'Then let them get out and walk!'

'The sledges had better not go down.'

'Why not? Go on, Antoni!'

'I don't advise it, sir.'

'Then get off and be hanged! I'll drive myself!'

Bells jingled violently, and a one-horse sledge passed Maciek like a
whirlwind. He crossed himself.

'Drive on, Andrei!'

'Stop, Count! It's too risky!'

'Go on!'

Another sledge flew past.

'Bravo! Sporting fellow!'

'Drive on, Jacent!'

Two sledges were racing each other, a driver and a mask in each. The
mad race had made the road sufficiently safe for the other empty
sledges to pass with greater caution.

'Now give your arm to the ladies! A polonaise! Musicians!'

The outriders with torches posted themselves along the road, the
musicians tuned up, and couple after couple detached itself from the
darkness like an iridescent apparition. They hovered past to the
melancholy strains of the Oginski polonaise.

Maciek took off his cap, drew the child from under the sheepskin and
stood beside his sledge.

'Now look, you'll never see anything so beautiful again. Don't be
afraid!'

An armoured and visored man passed.

'Do you see that knight? Formerly people like that conquered half the
world, now there are none of them left.'

A grey-bearded senator passed.

'Look at him! People used to fear his judgment, but there are none like
him left! That one, as gaudy as a woodpecker, was a great nobleman
once; he did nothing but drink and dance; he could drain a barrel at a
bout, and he spent so much money that he had to sell his family estate,
poor wretch! There's a Uhlan; they used to fight for Napoleon and
conquer all the nations, but there are no fighters left in the world.
There's a chimney sweep and a peasant...but in reality they are all
gentlemen amusing themselves.'

The procession passed; fainter and fainter grew the strains of the
Oginski polonaise; with shouts and laughter the masks got back into the
sleighs, hoofs clattered and whips cracked.

Maciek started cautiously homeward in the wake of the jingling sleighs.
Distant flames were still twinkling ahead, and the wind carried faint
sounds of merriment back to him. Then all was silent.

'Are they doing right?' he murmured, perturbed.

For he recalled the portrait of the grey-headed senator in the choir of
the church; he had even prayed to it sometimes.... The bald-headed
nobleman was there too, whom the peasants called 'the cursed man', and
the knight in armour who was lying on his tomb beside the altar of the
Holy Martyr Apollonius. Then he remembered the friar who walked through
the Vistula, and Queen Jadwiga who had brought salt from Hungary. And
by the side of all these he saw his own old wise grandfather, Roch
Owczarz, who had been a soldier under Napoleon, and came home without a
penny, and in his old age became sacristan at the church, and explained
all the pictures to the gospodarze so beautifully that he earned more
money than the organist.

'The Lord rest his soul eternally!'

And now these noblemen were amusing themselves with sacred matters!
What would they do next?...

Slimak met him when he was about a verst from the cottage.

'We have been wondering if you had got stuck on the hill. Thank God you
are safe. Did you see the sleigh race?'

'Oho!' said Maciek.

'I wonder they did not smash you to pieces.'

'Why should they? They even helped me up the hill.'

'Dear me! And they didn't pull you about?'

'They only pulled my cap over my ears.'

'That is just like them; either they will smash you up, or else be
kindness itself, it just depends what temper they're in.'

'But the way they drove down those hills made one's flesh creep. No
sober man would have come out of it alive.'

Two sledges now overtook them; there was one traveller in the first and
two in the second.

'Can you tell me where that sleigh party was driving to?' asked the
occupant of the first.

'To the squire's.'

'Indeed!... Do you know if Josel, the innkeeper, is at home?'

'I dare say he is, unless he is off on some swindle or other.'

'Do you know if your squire has sold his estate yet?' asked a guttural
voice from the second sledge.

'You shouldn't ask him such a question, Fritz,' remonstrated his
companion.

'Oh! the devil take the whole business!' replied Fritz.

'Aha, here they are again!' said Slimak.

'What do all those Old Testament Jews want?' asked Maciek.

'There was only one Jew, the others are Germans from Wolka.'

'The gentlefolks never have any peace; no sooner do they want to enjoy
themselves, than the Jews drive after them,' said Maciek.

Indeed, the sledges conveying the travellers were now with difficulty
driving towards the valley, and presently stopped at Josel's inn.

Barrels of burning pitch in front of the manor house threw a rosy glare
over the wintry landscape; distant sounds of music came floating on the
air.

Josel came out and directed the Jew's sledge to the manor. The Germans
got out, and one of them shouted after the departing Jew: 'You will see
nothing will come of it; they are amusing themselves.'

'Well, and what of that?'

'A nobleman does not give up a dance for a business interview.'

'Then he will sell without it.'

'Or put you off.'

'I have no time for that.'

The facade of the manor-house glowed as in a bengal light; the
sleigh-bells were still tinkling in the yard, where the coachmen were
quarrelling over accommodation for their horses. Crowds of village
people were leaning against the railings to watch the dancers flit past
the windows, and to catch the strains of the music. Around all this
noise, brightness, and merriment lay the darkness of the winter night,
and from the winter night emerged slowly the sledge, carrying the
silent, meditating Jew.

His modest conveyance stopped at the gate, and he dragged himself to
the kitchen entrance; his whole demeanour betrayed great mental and
physical tiredness. He tried to attract the attention of the cook, but
failed entirely; the kitchen-maid also turned her back on him. At last
he got hold of a boy who was hurrying across to the pantry, seized him
by the shoulders, and pressed a twenty kopek-piece into his hand.

'You shall have another twenty kopeks if you will bring the footman.'

'Does your honour know Mateus?' The boy scrutinized him sharply.

'I do, bring him here.'

Mateus appeared without delay.

'Here is a rouble for you; ask your master if he will see me, and I
will double it.' The footman shook his head.

'The master is sure to refuse.'

'Tell him, it is Pan Hirschgold, on urgent business from my lady's
father. Here is another rouble, so that you do not forget the name.'

Mateus quickly disappeared, but did not quickly return. The music
stopped, yet he did not return; a polka followed, yet he did not
return. At last he appeared: 'The master asks you to come to the
bailiff's office.' He took Pan Hirschgold into a room where several
camp-beds had been made up for the guests. The Jew took off his
expensive fur, sat down in an armchair by the fire and meditated.

The polka had been finished, and a vigorous mazurka began. The tumult
and stamping increased from time to time; commands rang out, and were
followed by a noise which shook the house from top to bottom. The Jew
listened indifferently, and waited without impatience.

Suddenly there was a great commotion in the passage; the door was
opened impetuously, and the squire entered.

He was dressed as a Crakovian peasant in a red coat covered with
jingling ornaments, wide, pink-and-white-striped breeches, a red cap
with a peacock's feather, and iron-shod shoes.

'How are you, Pan Hirschgold?' he cried good-humouredly, 'what is this
urgent message from my father-in-law?'

'Read it, sir.'

'What, now? I'm dancing a mazurka.'

'And I am building a railway.'

The squire bit his lip, and quickly ran his eye over the letter. The
noise of the dancers increased.

'You want to buy my estate?'

'Yes, and at once, sir.'

'But you see that I am giving a dance.'

'The colonists are waiting to come in, sir. If you cannot settle with
me before midnight, I shall settle with your neighbour. He gains, and
you lose.'

The squire was becoming feverish.

'My father-in-law recommends you highly...all the same,...on the spur
of the moment....'

'You need only write a word or two.'

The squire dashed his red cap down on the table. 'Really, Pan
Hirschgold, this is unbearable!'

'It's not my fault; I should like to oblige you, but business is
pressing.'

There was another hubbub in the passage, and the Uhlan burst into the
room, 'For heaven's sake, what are you doing, Wladek?'

'Urgent business.'

'But your lady is waiting for you!'

'Do arrange for some one to take my place; I tell you, it's urgent.'

'I don't know how the lady will take it!' cried the retreating Uhlan.

The powerful bass voice of the leader of the mazurka rang out: 'Ladies'
ronde!'

'How much will you give me?' hastily began the squire. 'Rather an
original situation!' he unexpectedly added, with humour.

'Seventy-five roubles an acre. This is my highest offer. To-morrow I
should only give sixty-seven.'

'En avant!' from the ball-room.

'Never!' cried the squire, 'I should prefer to sell to the peasants.'

'And get fifty, or at the outside sixty.'

'Or go on managing the estate myself.'

'You are doing that now...what is the result?'

'What do you mean?' said the squire irritably, 'it's excellent
soil....'

'I know all about the property,' interrupted the Jew, 'from the bailiff
who left at New Year.'

The squire became angry. 'I can sell to the colonists myself.'

'They may give sixty-seven, but meanwhile my lady is dying of boredom.'

'Chàine to the left!'

The squire became desperate. 'God, what am I to do?'

'Sign the agreement. Your father-in-law advises you to do so, and tells
you that I shall pay the highest price.'

'Partagez!'

Again the Uhlan violently burst into the room.

'Wladek, you really must come; the Count is mortally offended, and says
he will take his fiancée away.'

'Oh, confound it! Pan Hirschgold, write the agreement at once, I will
be back directly.'

Unmindful of the gaiety of the dance, the Jew calmly took an inkpot,
pen, and paper out of his bag, wrote a dozen lines, and sat down,
waiting for the noise to subside.

A quarter of an hour later the squire returned in the best of spirits.

'Ready?' he asked cheerfully.

'Ready.'

The squire read the paper, signed, and said with a smile:

'What, do you think is the value of this agreement?'

'Perhaps the legal value is not great, but it has some value for your
father-in-law, and he...well, he is a rich man!'

He blew on the signature, folded up the paper, and asked with a shade
of irony: 'Well, and the Count?'

'Oh, he is pacified.'

'He will want more pacifying presently, when his creditors become
annoying. I wish you a pleasant night, sir.'

No sooner had the squire left the room, than Mateus, the footman,
appeared, as if the ground had produced him. He helped the Jew into his
coat.

'Did you buy the estate, sir?'

'Why shouldn't I? It's not the first, nor will it be the last.'

He gave the footman three roubles. Mateus bowed to the ground and
offered to call his sledge.

'Oh no, thank you,' said the Jew, 'I have left my own sledge in Warsaw,
and I am not anxious to parade this wretched conveyance.'

Nevertheless, Mateus attended him deferentially into the yard.

In the ballroom polkas, valses, and mazurkas followed each other
endlessly until the pale dawn appeared, and the cottage fires were lit.

Slimak rose with the winter sun, and whispering a prayer, walked out of
the gate. He looked at the sky, then towards the manor-house, wondering
how long the merrymaking was going to last.

The sky was blue, the first sun rays were bathing the snow in rose
colour, and the clouds in purple. Slimak drew a deep breath, and felt
that it was better to be out in the fresh air than indoors, dancing.

'Making themselves tired without need,' he thought, 'when they might be
sleeping to their hearts' content!' Then he resumed his prayer. His
attention was attracted by voices, and he saw two men in navy blue
overcoats. When they caught sight of him, one asked at once:

'That is your hill, gospodarz, isn't it?'

Slimak looked at them in surprise.

'Why do you keep on asking me about my property? I told you last summer
that the hill was mine.'

'Then sell it to us,' said the man with the beard.

'Wait, Fritz,' interrupted the older man.

'Oh bother! are you going to gossip again, father?'

'Look here, gospodarz,' said the father, 'we have bought the squire's
estate. Now we want this; hill, because we want to build a
windmill....'

'Gracious!' exclaimed the son disagreeably, 'have you lost your senses,
father? Listen! we want that land!'

'My land?' the peasant repeated in amazement, looking about him, 'my
land?'

He hesitated for a moment, not knowing what to say. 'What right have
you gentlemen to my land?'

'We have got money.'

'Money?...I!...Sell my land for money? We have been settled here from
father to son; we were here at the time of the scourge of serfdom, and
even then we used to call the land "ours". My father got it for his own
by decree from the Emperor Alexander II; the Land Commission settled
all that, and we have the proper documents with signatures attached.
How can you say now that you want to buy my land?'

The younger man had turned away indifferently during Slimak's long
speech and whistled, the older man shook his fist impatiently.

'But we want to buy it...pay for it...cash! Sixty roubles an acre.'

'And I wouldn't sell it for a hundred,' said Slimak.

'Perhaps we could come to terms, gospodarz.' The peasant burst out
laughing.

'Old man, have you lived so long in this world, and don't understand


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Online LibraryVariousSelected Polish Tales → online text (page 6 of 22)