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now under construction, and no one sent for him from the manor - for
there was no manor. He smoked, strolled about for days together in the
yard, or looked at the abundantly sprouting corn. His favourite
pastime, however, was to watch the Germans, whose habitations were
shooting up like mushrooms.

By the end of May Hamer and two or three others had finished building,
and their gospodarstwos were pleasant to look at. They resembled each
other like drops of water; each one stood in the middle of its fields,
the garden was by the roadside, shut off by a wooden fence; the house,
roughcast, consisted of four large rooms, and behind it was a good-
sized square of farm-buildings.

All the buildings were larger and loftier than those of the Polish
peasants, and were clean and comfortable, although they looked stiff
and severe; for while the roofs of the Polish gospodarstwos overhung on
the four sides, those of the Germans did so only at the front and back.

But they had large windows, divided into six squares, and the doors
were made by the carpenter. Jendrek, who daily ran over to the
settlement reported that there were wooden floors, and that the kitchen
was a separate room with an iron-plated stove.

Slimak sometimes dreamt that he would build a place like that, only
with a different roof. Then he would jump up, because he felt he ought
to go somewhere and do work, for he was bored and ashamed of idling; at
times he would long for the manor-fields over which he had guided the
plough, where the settlement now stood. Then a great fear would seize
him that he would be powerless when the Germans, who had felled
forests, shattered rocks and driven away the squire, should start on
him in earnest.

But he always reassured himself. He had been neighbours with them now
for two months and they had done him no harm. They worked quietly,
minded their cattle so that they should not stray, and even their
children were not troublesome, but went to school at Hamer's house,
where the infirm schoolmaster kept them in order.

'They are respectable people,' he satisfied himself. 'I'm better off
with them than with the squire.'

He was, for they bought from him and paid well. In less than a month he
had taken a hundred roubles from them; at the manor this had meant a
whole year's toil.

'Do you think, Josef, that the Germans will always go on buying from
you?' his wife asked from time to time. 'They have their own
gospodarstwos now, and better ones than yours; you will see, it will
last through the summer at the best, and after that they won't buy a
stick from us.'

'We shall see,' said the peasant.

He was secretly counting on the advantages which he would reap from the
building of the new line; had not the engineer promised him this? He
even laid in provisions with this object, having to go farther afield,
for the peasants in the village would no longer sell him anything.

But he soon realized that prices had risen; the Germans had long ago
scoured the neighbourhood and bought without bargaining.

Once he met Josel who, instead of smiling maliciously at him as usual,
asked him to enter into a business transaction with him.

'What sort of business?' asked Slimak.

'Build a cottage on your land for my brother-in-law.'

'What for?'

'He wants to set up a shop and deal with the railway people, else the
Germans will take away all the business from under our noses.'

Slimak reflected.

'No, I don't want a Jew on my land,' he said. 'I shouldn't be the first
to be eaten up by you longcurls.'

'You don't want to live with a Jew, but you are not afraid to pray with
the Germans,' said the Jew, pale with anger.

Slimak was made to feel the profound unpopularity he had incurred in
the village. At church on Sundays hardly anyone answered him 'In
Eternity', and when he passed a group he would hear loud talk of
heresy, and God's judgment which would follow.

He therefore ordered a Mass one Sunday, on the advice of his wife, and
went to confession with her and Jendrek; but this did not improve
matters, for the villagers discussed over their beer in the evening
what deadly sin he might have been guilty of to go to confession and
pray so fervently.

Even old Sobieska rarely appeared and came furtively to ask for her
vodka. Once, when her tongue was loosened, she said: 'They say you have
turned into a Lutheran...It's true,' she added, 'there is only one
merciful God, still, the Germans are a filthy thing!'

The Germans now began mysteriously to disappear with their carts at
dawn of day, carrying large quantities of provisions with them. Slimak
investigated this matter, getting up early himself. Soon he saw a tiny
yellow speck in the direction which they had taken. It grew larger
towards evening, and he became convinced that it was the approaching
railway line.

'The scoundrels!' he said to his wife, 'they've been keeping this
secret so as to steal a march on me, but I shall drive over.'

'Well, look sharp!' cried his wife; 'those railway people were to have
been our best customers.'

He promised to go next day, but overslept himself, and Slimakowa barely
succeeded in driving him off the day after.

He gathered some information on the way from the peasants. Many of them
had volunteered for work, but only a few had been taken on, and those
had soon returned, tired out.

'It's dogs' work, not men's,' they told him; 'yet it might be worth
your while taking the horses, for carters earn four roubles a day.'

'Four roubles a day!' thought Slimak, laying on to the horses.

He drove on smartly and soon came alongside the great mounds of clay on
which strangers were at work, huge, strong, bearded men, wheeling large
barrows. Slimak could not wonder enough at their strength and industry.

'Certainly, none of our men would do this,' he thought.

No one paid any attention to him or spoke to him. At last two Jews
caught sight of him and one asked: 'What do you want, gospodarz?' The
embarrassed peasant twisted his cap in his hands.

'I came to ask whether the gentlemen wanted any barley or lard?'

'My dear man,' said the Jew, 'we have our regular contractors; a nice
mess we should be in, if we had to buy every sack of barley from the

'They must be great people,' thought Slimak, 'they won't buy from the
peasants, they must be buying from the gentry.'

So he bowed to the ground before the Jew, who was on the point of
walking away.

'I entreat the favour of being allowed to cart for the gentlemen.'

This humility pleased the Jew.

'Go over there, my dear fellow,' he said, 'perhaps they will take you

Slimak bowed again and made his way through the crowd with difficulty.
Among other carts he saw those of the settlers.

Fritz Hamer came forward to meet him; he seemed to be in a position of
some authority there.

'What do you want?' he asked.

'I want a job too.' The settler frowned.

'You won't get one here!'

Seeing that Slimak was looking round, he went to the inspector and
spoke to him.

'No work for carters,' the latter at once shouted, 'no work! As it is
we have too many, you are only getting in people's way. Be off!' The
brutal way in which this order was given so bewildered the peasant
that, in turning, he almost upset his cart; he drove off at full speed,
feeling as if he had offended some great power which had worked enough
destruction already and was now turning hills into valleys and valleys
into hills.

But gradually he reflected more calmly. People from the village had
been taken on, and he remembered seeing peasants' carts at the
embankment. Why had he been driven away?

It was quite clear that some one wished to shut him out.

'Curse the Judases, they're outdoing the Jews,' he muttered and felt a
horror of the Germans for the first time.

He told his wife briefly that there was no work, and betook himself to
the settlement. Old Hamer seemed to be in the middle of a heated
argument with Hirschgold and two other men. When he caught sight of the
peasant he took them into the barn.

'Sly dog,' murmured Slimak; 'he knows what I've come for. I'll tell him
straight to his face when he comes out.'

But at every step his courage failed him more and more. He hesitated
between his desire to turn back and his unwillingness to lose a job; he
hung about the fences, and looked at the women digging in their
gardens. A murmur like the hum of a beehive caught his ears: one of the
windows in Hamer's house was open and he looked into a schoolroom.

One of the children was reciting something in a clamorous voice, the
others were talking under their breath. The schoolmaster was standing
in the middle of the room, calling out 'Silence!' from time to time.

When he saw Slimak, he beckoned to his daughter to take his place, and
the hubbub of voices increased. Slimak watched her trying to cope with
the children.

The schoolmaster came up behind him, walking heavily.

'Did you come to see how we teach our children?' he asked, smilingly.

'Nothing of the kind,' said Slimak; 'I've come to tell Hamer that he is
a scoundrel.' He related his experience.

'What have I done?' he asked. 'Soon I may not be able to earn anything;
is one to starve because it pleases them?'

'The truth is,' said the schoolmaster, 'that you are a thorn in their


'Your land is right in the middle of Hamer's fields and that spoils his
farm, but that is not the reason as much as your hill; he wants it for
a windmill. They have nothing but level ground; it's the best land in
the settlement, but no good for a windmill; if they don't put it up,
one of the other settlers will.'

'And why are they so crazy after a windmill?'

'Well, it matters a great deal to them; if Wilhelm had a windmill he
could marry Miller Knap's daughter from Wolka and get a thousand and
twenty roubles with her; the Hamers may go bankrupt without that money.
That's why you stick in their throats. If you sold them your land they
would pay you well.'

'And I won't sell! I will neither help them to stay here nor do myself
harm for their benefit; when a man leaves the land of his fathers...'

'There will be trouble,' the schoolmaster said earnestly.

'Then let there be; I won't die because it pleases them.'

Slimak returned home without any further wish to see Hamer; he knew
there could be no understanding between them.

Maciek had discovered at dawn one morning that a crowd had reached the
river-bank by the ravines, and Slimak, hurrying thither, found some
gospodarze from the village among the men.

'What is happening?'

'They are going to throw up a dam and build a bridge across the
Bialka,' Wisniewski replied.

'And what are you doing here?'

'We have been taken on to cart sand.'

Slimak discovered the Hamers in the crowd.

'Nice neighbours you are!' he said bitterly, going up to them. 'Here
you are sending all the way to the village for carts, and you won't let
me have a job.'

'We will send for you when you are living in the village,' Fritz
answered, and turned his back.

An elderly gentleman was standing near them, and Slimak turned to him
and took off his cap.

'Is this justice, sir?' he said. 'The Germans are getting rich on the
railway, and I don't earn a kopek. Last year two gentlemen came and
promised that I should make a lot of money. Well, your honours are
building the railway now, but I've never yet taken my horses out of the
stable. A German with thirty acres of ground is having a good job, and
I have only ten acres and a wife and children to keep, as well as the
farmhand and the girl. We shall have to starve, and it's all because
the Germans have a grudge against me.'

He had spoken rapidly and breathlessly, and after a moment of surprise
the old man turned to Fritz Hamer.

'Why did you not take him on?'

Fritz looked insolently at him.

'Is it you who has to answer for the cartage or I? Will you pay my
fines when the men fail me? I take on those whom I can trust.'

The old man bit his lip, but did not reply.

'I can't help you, my brother,' he said; 'you shall drive me as often
as I come to this neighbourhood. It isn't much, but every little helps.
Where do you live?'

Slimak pointed to his cottage; he was longing to speak further, but the
old man turned to give some orders, and the peasant could only embrace
his knees.

Old Hamer waylaid him on the way back.

'Do you see now how badly you have done for yourself? You will do even
worse, for Fritz is furious.'

'God is greater than Fritz.'

'Will you take seventy-five roubles an acre and settle on the other
side of the Bug? You will have twice as much land.'

'I would not go to the other side of the Bug for double the money; you
go, if you like!'

When the angry men were looking back at each other, the one was
standing with a stubborn face, his pipe between his clenched teeth, the
other with folded arms, smiling sadly. Each was afraid of the other.

The embankment was growing slowly from west to east. Before long
thousands of carriages would roll along its line with the speed of
birds, to enrich the powerful, shatter the poor, spread new customs and
manners, multiply crime...all this is called 'the advancement of
civilization'. But Slimak knew nothing of civilization and its boons,
and therefore looked upon this outcome of it as ominous. The
encroaching line seemed to him like the tongue of some vast reptile,
and the mounds of earth to forebode four graves, his own and those of
his wife and children.

Maciek also had been watching its progress, which he considered an
entire revolution of the laws of nature.

'It's a monstrous thing', he said, 'to heap up so much sand on the
fields near the river, and narrow the bed; when the Bialka swells, it
will overflow.'

Slimak saw that the ends of the embankment were touching the river, but
as they had been strengthened by brick walls he took no alarm.
Nevertheless, it struck him that the Hamers were hurriedly throwing up
dams on their fields in the lower places.

'Quick folk!' he thought, and contemplated doing the same, and
strengthening the dams with hurdles, as soon as he had cut the hay. It
occurred to him that he might do it now when he had plenty of time,
but, as usual, it remained a good intention.

It was the beginning of July, when the hay had been cut and people were
gradually preparing for the harvest. Slimak had stacked his hay in the
backyard, but the Germans were still driving in stakes and throwing up

The summer of that year was remarkable for great heat; the bees
swarmed, the corn was ripening fast, the Bialka was shallower than
usual, and three of the workmen died of sunstroke. Experienced farmers
feared either prolonged rain during the harvest or hail before long.
One day the storm came.

The morning had been hot and sultry, the birds did not sing, the pigs
refused to eat and hid in the shade behind the farmbuildings; the wind
rose and fell, it blew now hot and dry, now cool and damp. By about ten
o'clock a large part of the sky was lined with heavy clouds, shading
from ashen-grey into iron-colour and perfect black; at times this sooty
mass, seeking an outlet upon the earth, burst asunder, revealing a
sinister light through the crevices. Then again the clouds lowered
themselves and drowned the tops of the forest trees in mists. But a hot
wind soon drove them upwards again and tore strips off them, so that
they hung ragged over the fields.

Suddenly a fiery cloud appeared behind the village church; it seemed to
be flying at full speed along the railway embankment, driven by the
west wind; at the same time the north wind sprang up and buffeted it
from the side; dust flew up from the highroads and sandhills, and the
clouds began to growl.

When they heard the sound, the workmen left their tools and barrows,
and filed away in two long detachments, one to the manor-house, the
other to their huts. The peasants and settlers turned the sand out of
their carts with all speed and galloped home. The cattle were driven in
from the fields, the women left their gardens; every place became

Thunderclap after thunderclap announced ever-fresh legions pressing
into the sky and obscuring the sun. It seemed as if the earth were
cowering in their presence, as a partridge cowers before the hovering
hawk. The blackthorn and juniper bushes called to caution with a low,
swishing noise; the troubled dust hid in the corn, where the young ears
whispered to each other; the distant forests murmured.

High above, in the overcharged clouds, an evil force, with strong
desire to emulate the Creator, was labouring. It took the limp element
and formed an island, but before it had time to say, 'It is good', the
wind had blown the island away. It raised a gigantic mountain, but
before the summit had crowned it, the base had been blown from
underneath. Now it created a lion, now a huge bird, but soon only torn
wings and a shapeless torso dissolved into darkness. Then, seeing that
the works fashioned by the eternal hands endured, and that its own
phantom creations could not resist even the feeblest wind, the evil
spirit was seized with a great anger and determined to destroy the

It sent a flash into the river, then thundered, 'Strike those fields
with hail! drench the hill!' And the obedient clouds flung themselves
down. The wind whistled the reveille, the rain beat the drum; like
hounds released from the leash the clouds bounded forward...downward,
following the direction to which the flashes of lightning pointed. The
evil spirit had put out the sun.

After an hour's downpour the exhausted storm calmed down, and now the
roar of the Bialka could be distinctly heard. It had broken down the
banks, flooded the highroad and fields with dirty water and formed a
lake beyond the sandhills of the railway embankment.

Soon, however, the storm had gathered fresh strength, the darkness
increased, lightning seemed to flash from all parts of the horizon;
perpendicular torrents of rain drowned the earth in sheets of mist. The
inmates of Slimak's cottage had gathered in the front room; Maciek sat
yawning on a corner of the bench, Magda, beside him, nursed the baby,
singing to it in a low voice; Slimakowa was vexed that the storm was
putting the fire out; Slimak was looking out of the window, thinking of
his crops. Jendrek was the only cheerful one; he ran out from time to
time, wetting himself to the skin, and tried to induce his brother or
Magda to join him in these excursions.

'Come, Stasiek,' he cried, pulling him by the hand, 'it's such a warm
rain, it will wash you and cheer you up.'

'Leave him alone,' said his father; 'he is peevish.'

'And don't run out yourself,' added his mother, 'you are flooding the
whole room.... The Word was made Flesh,' she added under her breath, as
a terrific clap of thunder shook the house. Magda crossed herself;
Jendrek laughed and cried, 'What a din! there's another.... The Lord
Jesus is enjoying Himself, firing off....'

'Be quiet, you silly,' called his mother; 'it may strike you!'

'Let it strike!' laughed the boy boldly. 'They'll take me into the army
and shoot at me, but I don't mind!' He ran out again.

'The rascal! he isn't afraid of anything,' Slimakowa said to her
husband with pride in her voice. Slimak shrugged his shoulders.

'He's a true peasant.'

Yet among that group of people with iron nerves there was one who felt
all the terror of this upheaval of the elements. How was it that
Stasiek, a peasant child, was so sensitive?

Like the birds he had felt the coming storm, had roamed about
restlessly and watched the clouds, fancying that they were taking
council together, and he guessed that their intentions were evil. He
felt the pain of the beaten-down grass and shivered at the thought of
the earth being chilled under sheets of water. The electricity in the
air made his flesh tingle, the lightning dazzled him, and each clap of
thunder was like a blow on his head. It was not that he was afraid of
the storm, but he suffered under it, and his suffering spirit pondered,
'Why and whence do such terrible things come?'

He wandered from the room to the alcove, from the alcove to the room,
as if he had lost his way, gazed absently out of the window and lay
down on the bench, feeling all the more miserable because no one took
any notice of him.

He wanted to talk to Maciek, but he was asleep; he tried Magda and
found her absorbed in the baby; he was afraid of Jendrek's dragging him
out of doors if he spoke to him. At last he clung to his mother, but
she was cross because of the fire and pushed him away.

'A likely thing I should amuse you, when the dinner is being spoilt!'
He roamed about again, then leant against his father's knee.

'Daddy,' he said in a low voice, 'why is the storm so bad?'

'Who knows?'

'Is God doing it?'

'It must be God.'

Stasiek began to feel a little more cheerful, but his father happened
to shift his position, and the child thought he had been pushed away
again. He crept under the bench where Burek lay, and although the dog
was soaking wet, he pressed close to him and laid his head on the
faithful creature.

Unluckily his mother caught sight of him.

'Whatever's the matter with the boy?' she cried. 'Just you come away
from there, or the lightning will strike you! Out into the passage,

She looked for a piece of wood, and the dog crept out with his tail
between his legs. Stasiek was left again to his restlessness, alone in
a roomful of people. Even his mother was now struck by his miserable
face and gave him a piece of bread to comfort him. He bit off a
mouthful, but could not swallow it and burst into tears.

'Good gracious, Stasiek, what's the matter? Are you frightened?'


'Then why are you so queer?'

'It hurts me here,' he said, pointing to his chest.

Slimak, who was depressed himself, thinking of his harvest, drew him to
his knee, saying: 'Don't worry! God may destroy our crop, but we won't
starve all the same. He is the smallest, and yet he has more sense than
the others,' he said, turning to his wife; 'he's worrying about the

Gradually, as the storm abated, the roar of the river struck them
afresh. Slimak quickly drew on his boots.

'Where are you going?' asked his wife.

'Something's wrong outside.'

He went and returned breathlessly.

'I say! It's just as I thought.'

'Is it the corn?'

'No, that hasn't suffered much, but the dam is broken.'

'Jesus! Jesus!'

'The water is up to our yard. Those scoundrel Swabians have dammed up
their fields, and that has taken some more off the hill.'

'Curse them!'

'Have you looked into the stable?' asked Maciek.

'Is it likely I shouldn't? There's water in the stable, water in the
cowshed, look! even the passage is flooded; but the rain is stopping,
we must bale out.'

'And the hay?'

'That will dry again if God gives fine weather.'

Soon the entire household were baling in the house and farm-buildings;
the fire was burning brightly, and the sun peeped out from behind the

On the other bank of the river the Germans were at work. Barelegged,
and armed with long poles, they waded carefully through the flooded
fields towards the river to catch the drifting logs.

Stasiek was calming down; he was not tingling all over now. From time
to time he still fancied he heard the thunder, and strained his ears,
but it was only the noise of the others baling with wooden grain
measures. There was much commotion in the passage where Jendrek pushed
Magda about instead of baling.

'Steady there,' cried his mother, 'when I get hold of something hard
I'll beat you black and blue!'

But Jendrek laughed, for he could tell by a shade in her voice that she
was no longer cross.

Courage returned to Stasiek's heart. Supposing he were to peep out into
the yard... would there still be a terrible black cloud? Why not try?
He put his head out of the back door and saw the blue sky flecked with
little white clouds hurrying eastwards. The cock was flapping his wings
and crowing, heavy drops were sparkling on the bushes, golden streaks
of sunlight penetrated into the passage, and bright reflections from
the surface of the waters beckoned to him.

He flew out joyfully through the pools of water, delighting in the
rainbow-coloured sheaves that were spurting from under his feet; he
stood on a plank and punted himself along with a stick, pretending that
he was sailing in deep water.

'Come, Jendrek!' he called.

'Stop here and go on baling,' called out Slimakowa.

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Online LibraryVariousSelected Polish Tales → online text (page 9 of 22)