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that I would not sell my land on any terms whatever?'

'You could buy thirty acres the other side of the Bug with what we
should pay you.'

'If land is so cheap the other side of the Bug, why don't you buy it
yourself instead of coming here?' The son laughed.

'He is no fool, father; he is telling you what I have been telling you
from morning till night.'

The old man took Slimak's hand.

'Gospodarz,' he said, pressing it, 'let us talk like Christians and not
like heathens. We praise the same God, why should we not agree? You
see, I have a son who is an expert miller, and I should like him to
have a windmill on that hill. When he has a windmill he will grow
steady and work and get married. Then I could be happy in my old age.
That hill is nothing to you.'

'But it's my land, no one has a right to it.'

'No one has a right to it, but I want to buy it.'

'Well, and I won't sell it!'

The old man made a wry face, as if he were ready to cry. He drew the
peasant a few steps aside, and said in a voice trembling with emotion:
'Why are you so hard on me, gospodarz? You see, my sons don't hit it
off with each other. The elder is a farmer, and I want to set up the
younger as a miller and have him near me. I haven't long to live, I am
eighty years old, don't quarrel with me.'

'Can't you buy land elsewhere?'

'Not very well. We are a whole community settling together; it would
take a long time to make other arrangements. My son Wilhelm does not
like farming, and unless I buy him a windmill he will starve or go away
from me. I am an old man, sell me your land! Listen,' he whispered, 'I
will give you seventy-five roubles an acre. God is my witness, I am
offering you more than the land is worth. But you will let me have it,
won't you? You are an honest man and a Christian.'

Slimak looked with astonishment and pity at the old man, from whose
inflamed eyes the tears were pouring down.

'You can't have much sense, sir, to ask me such a thing,' he said.
'Would you ask a man to cut off his hand? What could a peasant do
without his land?'

'You could buy twice as much. I will help you to find it.'

Slimak shook his head. 'You are talking as a man talks when he digs up
a shrub in the woods. "Come," he says, "you shall be near my cottage!"
The shrub comes because it must, but it soon dies.'

The man with the beard approached and spoke to his father in German.

'So you won't sell me your land?' said the old man.

'I won't.'

'Not for seventy-five roubles?'


'And I tell you, you will sell it,' cried the younger man, drawing his
father away. They went towards the bridge, talking German loudly.

The peasant rested his chin on his hand and looked after them; then his
eyes fell on the manor-house, and he returned to the cottage at full
speed. 'Jagna,' he cried, 'do you know that the squire has sold his
estate?' The gospodyni crossed herself with a spoon.

'In the name of the Father...Are you mad, Josef? Who told you so?'

'Two Germans spoke to me just now; they told me. And, Jagna, they want
to buy our land, our own land!'

'You are off your head altogether!' cried the woman. 'Jendrek, go and
see if there are any Germans about; your father is talking nonsense.'

Jendrek returned with the information that he had seen two men in blue
overcoats the other side of the bridge.

Slimak sat on the bench, his head drooping, his hands resting limply on
his knees. The morning light had turned grey, and made men and objects
look dull. The gospodyni suddenly looked attentively at her husband.

'Why are you so pale?' she asked. 'What is the matter?'

'What is the matter? A nice question for a clever woman to ask! Don't
you understand that the Germans will take the field away from us if the
squire has sold it to them?'

'Why should they? We could pay the rent to them.'

The woman tried to talk confidently, but her voice was unsteady.

'You don't know what you're talking about! Germans keep cattle and are
sharp after grazing land. Besides, they will want to get rid of me.'

'We shall see who gets rid of whom!' Slimakowa said sharply.

She came and stood in front of her husband, with her arms akimbo,
gradually raising her voice.

'Lord, what a man! He has only just looked at the Swabian[1] vermin,
and he has lost heart already. They will take away the field? Well,
what of that? we will drive the cattle into it all the same.'

[Footnote 1: The Polish peasants call all Germans 'Swabians'.]

'They will shoot the cattle.'

'That isn't allowed.'

'Then they will go to law and worry the life out of me.'

'Very well, then we will buy fodder.'

'Where? The gospodarze won't sell us any, and we shan't get a blade
from the Germans.'

The breakfast was boiling over, but the housewife paid no attention to
it. She shook her clenched fists at her husband.

'What do you mean, Josef! Pull yourself together! This is bad, and that
is no good!...What will you do then? You are taking the courage away
from me, a woman, instead of making up your mind what to do. Aren't you
ashamed before the children and Magda to sit there like a dying man,
rolling your eyes? Do you think I shall let the children starve for the
sake of your Germans, or do you think I shall get rid of the cow? Don't
imagine that I shall allow you to sell your land! No fear! If I fall
down dead and they bury me, I shall dig myself out again and prevent
you from doing the children harm! Why are you sitting there, looking at
me like a sheep? Eat your breakfast and go to the manor. Find out if
the squire has really sold his land, and if he hasn't, fall at his
feet, and lie there till he lets you have the field, even if you have
to pay sixty roubles.'

'And if he has sold it?'

'If he has sold it, may God punish him!'

'That won't give us the field.'

'You are a fool!' she cried. 'We and the children and the cattle have
lived by God's grace and not by the squire's.'

'That's so,' said Slimak, suddenly getting up. 'Give me my breakfast.
What are you crying for?'

After her passionate outburst Slimakowa had actually broken down.

'How am I not to cry,' she sobbed, 'when the merciful God has punished
me with such an idiot of a husband? He will do nothing himself and
takes away my courage into the bargain.'

'Don't be a fool,' he said, with his face clouding. 'I'll go to the
squire at once, even if I should have to give sixty roubles.'

'But if the field is sold?'

'Hang him, we have lived by the grace of God and not by his.'

'Then where will you get fodder?'

'Look after your pots and pans, and don't meddle with a man's affairs.'

'The Germans will drive you away.'

'The deuce they will!' He struck the table with his fist. 'If I were to
fall down dead, if they chopped me into little pieces, I wouldn't let
the dogs have my land. Give me my breakfast, or I'll ask you the reason
why!...And you, Jendrek, be off with Maciek, or I shall get the strap!'

The sun shone into the ballroom of the manorhouse through every chink
and opening; streaks of white light lay on the floor, which was dented
by the dancers' heels, and on the walls; the rays were reflected in the
mirrors, rested on the gilt cornices and on the polished furniture. In
comparison with them the light of the candles and lamps looked yellow
and turbid. The ladies were pale and had blue circles round their eyes,
the powder was falling from their dishevelled hair, their dresses were
crumpled, and here and there in holes. The padding showed under the
imitation gold of the braids and belts of notables; rich velvets had
turned into cheap velveteens, beaver fur to rabbit skins, and silver
armour to tin. The musicians' hands dropped, the dancers' legs had
grown stiff. Intoxication had cooled and given place to heaviness; lips
were breathing feverishly. Only three couples were now turning in the
middle of the room, then two, then none. There was a lack of arm-chairs
for the men; the ladies hid their yawns behind their fans. At last the
music ceased, and as no one said anything, a dead silence spread
through the room. Candles began to splutter and went out, lamps smoked.

'Shall we go in to tea?' asked the squire, in a hoarse voice.

'To bed,' whispered the guests.

'The bedrooms are ready,' he said, trying to sound cheerful, in spite
of sleepiness and a cold.

The ladies immediately got up, threw their wraps over their shoulders
and left the room, turning their faces away from the windows.

Soon the ballroom was empty, save for the old cellist, who had gone to
sleep with his arms round his instrument. The bustle was transferred to
distant rooms; there was much stamping upstairs and noise of men's
voices in the courtyard. Then all became silent.

The squire came clinking along the passages, looked dully round the
ballroom, and said, yawning: 'Put out the lights, Mateus, and open the
windows. Where is my lady?'

'My lady has gone to her room.'

My lady, in her orange-velvet gipsy costume and a diamond hoop in her
hair, was lying in an arm-chair, her head thrown back. The squire
dropped into another arm-chair, yawning broadly.

'Well, it was a great success.'

'Splendid,' yawned my lady.

'Our guests ought to be satisfied.' After a while he spoke again.

'Do you know that I have sold the estate?'

'To whom?'

'To Hirschgold; he is giving me seventy-five roubles an acre.'

'Thank God we shall get away at last.'

'Well, you might come and give me a kiss!'

'I'm much too tired. Come here, if you want one.'

'I deserve that you should come here. I've done exceedingly well.'

'No, I won't. Hirschgold...Hirschgold...oh yes, some acquaintance of
father's. The first mazurka was splendid, wasn't it?'

The squire was snoring.


The squire and his wife left for Warsaw a week after the ball. Their
place was taken by Hirschgold's agent, a freckle-faced Jew, who
installed himself in a small room in the bailiffs house, spent his days
in looking through and sending out accounts, and bolted the door and
slept with two revolvers under his pillow at night.

The squire had taken part of the furniture with him, the rest of the
suites and fixtures were sold to the neighbouring gentry; the Jews
bought up the library by the pound, the priest acquired the American
organ, the garden-seats passed into Gryb's ownership, and for three
roubles the peasant Orzchewski became possessed of the large engraving
of Leda and the Swan, to which the purchaser and his family said their
prayers. The inlaid floors henceforward decorated the magisterial
court, and the damask hangings were bought by the tailors and made into
bodices for the village girls.

When Slimak went a few weeks later to have a look at the manor-house he
could not believe his eyes at the sight of the destruction that had
taken place. There were no panes in the windows and not a single latch
left on the wide-open doors; the walls had been stripped and the floors
taken up. The drawing-room was a dungheap, Pani Joselawa, the
innkeeper's wife, had put up hencoops there and in the adjoining rooms;
axes and saws were lying about everywhere. The farmhands, who according
to agreement were kept on till midsummer, strolled idly from corner to
corner; one of the teamdrivers had taken desperately to drink; the
housekeeper was ill with fever, and the pantryboy, as well as one of
the farm-boys, were in prison for stealing latches off the doors.

'Good God!' said the peasant.

He was seized with fear at the thought of the unknown power which had
ruined the ancient manor-house in a moment. An invisible cloud seemed
to be hanging over the valley and the village; the first flash of
lightning had struck and completely shattered the seat of its owners.

Some days later the neighbourhood began to swarm with strangers,
woodcutters and sawyers, mostly Germans. They walked and drove in
crowds along the road past Slimak's cottage; sometimes they marched in
detachments like soldiers. They were quartered at the manor, where they
turned out the servants and the remaining cattle: they occupied every
corner. At night they lit great fires in the courtyard, and in the
morning they all walked off to the woods. At first it was difficult to
guess what they were doing. Soon, however, there was a distant echo as
of someone drumming with his fingers on the table; at last the sound of
the axe and the thud of falling trees was heard quite plainly. Fresh
inroads on the wavy contour of the forest appeared continually; first
crevices, then windows, then wide openings, and for the first time
since the world was the world, the astonished sky looked into the
valley from that side.

The wood fell: only the sky remained and the earth with a few juniper
bushes and countless rows of tree-trunks, hastily stripped of their
branches. The rapacious axe had not spared one of the leafy tribe. Not
one - not even the centenarian oak which had been touched by lightning
more than once. Gazing upwards, this defier of storms had hardly
noticed the worms turning round its feet, and the blows of their axes
meant no more to it than the tapping of the woodpecker. It fell
suddenly, convinced at the last that the world was insecure after all,
and not worth living in.

There was another oak, half withered, on the branches of which the
unfortunate Simon Golamb[1] had hanged himself; the people passed it in

[Footnote 1: Polish spelling: _Gotab_.]

'Flee!' it murmured, when the woodcutters approached. 'I bring you
death; only one man dared to touch my branches, and he died.' But the
woodcutters paid no heed, deeper and deeper they sent the sharp axe
into its heart, and with a roar it swayed and fell.

The night-wind moaned over the corpses of the strong trees, and the
birds and wild creatures, deprived of their native habitations,

Older still than the oaks were the huge boulders thickly sown over the
fields. The peasants had never touched them; they were too heavy to be
removed; moreover, there was a superstition that the rebellious devils
had in the first days of the creation thrown these stones at the
angels, and that it was unlucky to touch them. Overgrown with moss they
each lay in an island of green grass; the shepherds lit their fires
beneath them on chilly nights, the ploughmen lay down in their shade on
a hot afternoon, the hawker would sometimes hide his treasures
underneath them.

Now their last hour had struck too; men began to busy themselves about
them. At first the village people thought that the 'Swabians' were
looking for treasure; but Jendrek found out that they were boring holes
in the venerable stones.

'What are the idiots doing that for?' asked Slimakowa. 'Blessed if I
know what's the good of that to them!'

'I know, neighbour,' said old Sobieska, blinking her eyes; 'they are
boring because they have heard that there are toads inside those big

'And what if there are?'

'You see, they want to know if it's true.'

'But what's that to them?'

'I'll be hanged if I know!' retorted Sobieska in such a decided tone
that Slimakowa considered the matter as settled.

The Germans, however, were not looking for toads. Before long such a
cannonading began that the echoes reached the farthest ends of the
valley, telling every one that not even the rocks were able to
withstand the Germans.

'Those Swabians are a hard race,' muttered Slimak, as he gazed on the
giants that had been dashed to pieces. He thought of the colonists for
whom the property had been bought, and who now wanted his land as well.

'They are not anywhere about,' he thought; 'perhaps they won't come
after all.'

But they came.

One morning, early in April, Slimak went out before sunrise as usual to
say his prayers in the open. The east was flushed with pink, the stars
were paling, only the morning star shone like a jewel, and was welcomed
from below by the awakening birds.

The peasant's lips moved in prayer, while he fixed his eyes on the
white mist which covered the ground like snow. Then it was that he
heard a distant sound from beyond the hills, a rumble of carts and the
voices of many people. He quickly walked up the lonely pine hill and
perceived a long procession of carts covered with awnings, filled with
human beings and their domestic and agricultural implements. Men in
navy-blue coats and straw hats were walking beside them, cows were tied
behind, and small herds of pigs were scrambling in and out of the
procession. A little cart, scarcely larger than a child's, brought up
the rear; it was drawn by a dog and a woman, and conveyed a man whose
feet were dangling down in front.

'The Swabians are coming!' flashed through Slimak's mind, but he put
the thought away from him.

'Maybe they are gipsies,' he argued. But no - they were not dressed like
gipsies, and woodcutters don't take cattle about with them - then who
were they?

He shrank from the thought that the colonists were actually coming.

'Maybe it's they, maybe not...' he whispered.

For a moment a hill concealed them from his view, and he hoped that the
vision had dissolved into the light of day. But there they were again,
and each step of their lean horses brought them nearer. The sun was
gilding the hill which they were ascending, and the larks were singing
brightly to welcome them.

Across the valley the church bell was ringing. Was it calling to
prayers as usual, or did it warn the people of the invasion of a
foreign power?

Slimak looked towards the village. The cottage-doors were closed, no
one was astir, and even if he had shouted aloud, 'Look, gospodarze, the
Germans are here!' no one would have been alarmed.

The string of noisy people now began to file past Slimak's cottage. The
tired horses were walking slowly, the cows could scarcely lift their
feet, the pigs squeaked and stumbled. But the people were happy,
laughing and shouting from cart to cart. They turned round by the
bridge on to the open ground.

The small cart in the rear had now reached Slimak's gate; the big dog
fell down panting, the man raised himself to a sitting position and the
girl took the strap from her shoulder and wiped her perspiring
forehead. Slimak was seized with pity for them; he came down from the
hill and approached the travellers.

'Where do you all come from? Who are you?' he asked.

'We are colonists from beyond the Vistula,' the girl answered. 'Our
people have bought land here, and we have come with them.'

'But have not you bought land also?'

The woman shrugged her shoulders.

'Is it the custom with you for the women to drag the men about?'

'What can we do? we have no horses and my father cannot walk on his own

'Is your father lame?'


The peasant reflected for a moment.

'Then he is hanging on to the others, as it were?'

'Oh no,' replied the girl with much spirit, 'father teaches the
children and I take in sewing, and when there is no sewing to do I work
in the fields.'

Slimak looked at her with surprise and said, after a pause: 'You can't
be German, you talk our language very well.'

'We are from Germany.'

'Yes, we are Germans,' said the man in the cart, speaking for the first

Slimakowa and Jendrek now came out of the cottage and joined the group
at the gate.

'What a strong dog!' cried Jendrek.

'Look here,' said Slimak, 'this lady has dragged her lame father a long
way in the cart; would you do that, you scamp?'

'Why should I? Haven't they any horses, dad?'

'We have had horses,' murmured the man in the cart, 'but we haven't any

He was pale and thin, with red hair and beard.

'Wouldn't you like to rest and have something to eat after your long
journey?' inquired Slimak.

'I don't want anything to eat, but my father would like some milk.'

'Run and get some milk, Jendrek,' cried Slimak.

'Meaning no offence,' said Slimakowa, 'but you Germans can't have a
country of your own, or else you wouldn't come here.'

'This is our home,' the girl replied. 'I was born in this country, the
other side of the Vistula.'

Her father made an impatient movement and said in a broken voice: 'We
Germans have a country of our own, larger than yours, but it's not
pleasant to live in: too many people, too little land; it's difficult
to make a living, and we have to pay heavy taxes and do hard military
service, and there are penalties for everything.'

He coughed and continued after a pause: 'Everybody wants to be
comfortable and live as he pleases, and not as others tell him. It's
not pleasant to live in our country, so we've come here.'

Jendrek brought the milk and offered it to the girl, who gave it to her

'God repay you!' sighed the invalid; 'the people in this country are

'I wish you would not do us harm,' said Slimakowa in a half-whisper.

'Why should we do you harm?' said the man. 'Do we take your land? do we
steal? do we murder you? We are quiet people, we get in nobody's way so
long as nobody gets...'

'You have bought the land here,' Slimak interrupted.

'But why did your squire sell it to us? If thirty peasants had been
settled here instead of one man, who did nothing but squander his
money, our people would not have come. Why did not you yourselves form
a community and buy the village? Your money would have been as good as
ours. You have been settled here for ages, but the colonists had to
come in before you troubled about the land, and then no sooner have
they bought it than they become a stumbling-block to you! Why wasn't
the squire a stumbling-block to you?'

Breathless, he paused and looked at his wasted arms, then continued:
'To whom is it that the colonists resell their land? To you peasants!
On the other side of the Vistula[1] the peasants bought up every scrap
of our land.'

[Footnote 1: i.e. in Prussian Poland. One of the Polish people's
grievances is that the large properties are not sold direct to them but
to the colonists, and the peasants have to buy the land from them.
Statistics show that in spite of the great activity of the German
Colonization Commission more and more land is constantly acquired by
the Polish peasants, who hold on to the land tenaciously.]

'One of your lot is always after me to sell him my land,' said Slimak.

'To think of such a thing!' interposed his wife. 'Who is he?'

'How should I know? there are two of them, and they came twice, an old
man and one with a beard. They want my hill to put up a windmill, they

'That's Hamer,' said the girl under her breath to her father.

'Oh, Hamer,' repeated the invalid, 'he has caused us difficulties
enough. Our people wanted to go to the other side of the Bug, where
land only costs thirty roubles an acre, but he persuaded them to come
here, because they are building a railway across the valley. So our
people have been buying land here at seventy roubles an acre and have
been running into debt with the Jew, and we shall see what comes of

The girl meanwhile had been eating coarse bread, sharing it with the
dog. She now looked across to where the colonists were spreading
themselves over the fields.

'We must go, father,' she said.

'Yes, we must go; what do I owe you for the milk, gospodarz?'

The peasant shrugged his shoulders.

'If we were obliged to take money for a little thing like that, I
shouldn't have asked you.'

'Well, God repay you!'

'God speed you,' said Slimak and his wife.

'Strange folk, those Germans,' he said, when they had slowly moved off.
'He is a clever man, yet he goes about in that little cart like an old

'And the girl!' said Slimakowa, 'whoever heard of dragging an old man
about, as if you were a horse.'

'They're not bad,' said Slimak, returning to his cottage.

The conversation with the Germans had reassured him that they were not
as terrible as he had fancied.

When Maciek went out after breakfast to plough the potato-fields,
Slimak slipped off.

'You've got to put up the fence!' his wife called out after him.

'That won't run away,' he answered, and banged the door, fearful lest
his wife should detain him.

He crouched as he ran through the yard, wishing to attract her
attention as little as possible, and went stealthily up the hill to
where Maciek was perspiring over his ploughing.

'How about those Swabians?' asked the labourer.

Slimak sat down on the slope so that he could not be seen from the
cottage, and pulled out his pipe.

'You might sit over there,' Maciek said, pointing with his whip to a
raised place; 'then I could smell the smoke.'

'What's the good of the smoke to you? I'll give you my pipe to finish,

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Online LibraryVariousSelected Polish Tales → online text (page 7 of 22)