Part 2 out of 7
'No need for me to do that; he _is_ an idiot. Our peasants are all
muscle and stomach; they leave reason and energy to their wives. Slimak
is one of the most intelligent, yet I will bet you anything that I can
immediately give you a proof of his being a donkey. Josef,' he said,
turning to Slimak, 'your wife told you to drive a good bargain?'
'Certainly, sir, what is true is true.'
'Do you know what Lukasiak pays me yearly?'
'They say ten roubles.'
'Then you ought to pay twenty roubles for the two acres.'
'If you will be lenient, sir,' began Slimak.
'... and let me off three roubles,' completed the squire. Slimak looked
'Very good, I will let you off three roubles; you shall pay me
seventeen roubles yearly. Are you satisfied!'
Slimak bowed to the ground and thought: 'What is he up to? He is not
'Now, Slimak,' continued the squire, 'I will make you another proposal.
Do you know what Gryb paid me for the two acres he bought?'
'Just so, and he paid for the surveyor and the lawyer. I will sell you
those two acres for sixty roubles and let you off all expenses, so you
would gain a clear twenty roubles against Gryb's bargain, But I make
one condition, you must decide at once and without consulting your
wife; to-morrow my conditions wouldn't be the same.'
Slimak's eyes blazed; he fancied he saw quite clearly now that there
was a conspiracy against him.
'That's not a handsome thing to offer, sir,' he said, with a forced
smile; 'you yourself consult with the lady and the young gentleman.'
'There you are! Isn't he a finished idiot?'
His brother-in-law tapped Slimak on the shoulder. 'Agree to it, my
friend; you'll have the best of the bargain. Of course he agrees,' he
said, turning to the squire.
'Well, Josef, will you buy it? Do you agree to my conditions?'
'I'm not such a fool,' thought Slimak, and aloud: 'It wouldn't be fair
to buy it without my wife.'
'Very well, I'll let it to you. Give me your earnest-money and come for
the receipt to-morrow. There you have the peasant, my democrat!'
Slimak paid the ten roubles and glared at the retreating party.
'Ah! you'd like to cheat a peasant, but he has got too much sense! It's
true, then, what Grochowski said about the land-distribution. Sixty
roubles for a field worth seventy, indeed!'
All the same he could not quite get rid of the thought that it might
have been a straightforward offer. He felt hot all over and wanted to
shout or run after the squire. At that moment the young man hastily
'Buy that field,' he said, quite out of breath; 'my brother-in-law
would still consent if you asked him.'
In an instant Slimak's distrust returned.
'No, sir; it wouldn't be fair.'
'Cattle!' murmured the democrat, and turned his back. The bargain had
'Let's go home, boys,' and under his breath: 'Damn the aristocracy!'
When they were nearing their home, the boys ran on ahead, for they were
'What is this Jendrek tells me? They wanted to sell you the land for
'That is so,' he replied, rather frightened; 'they are afraid of the
new land-distributions. They are clever too! They knew all about my
business beforehand, and the squire had set his brother-in-law on to
'What! that fellow who spoke to me by the river?'
'That same fool. He gave Jendrek twenty kopeks and put my cap on my
head, and he told me ten acres was a fortune.'
'A fortune? His brother-in-law has a thousand and says he hasn't
enough! You did quite right not to buy the field; there is something
shady about that business.'
But his wife's satisfaction did not completely reassure Slimak; he was
wretchedly in doubt. His dinner gave him no pleasure, and he strolled
about the house without knowing what to do. When his irritation had
reached its climax, a happy thought struck him.
'Come here, Jendrek,' he said, unbuckling his belt.
'Oh, daddy, don't,' wailed the boy, although he had been prepared for
the last two hours.
'You won't escape it this time; lie down on the bench. You've been
laughing at the young gentleman and even making fun of the squire.'
Stasiek, in tears, embraced his father's knees, Magda ran out of the
room, Jendrek howled.
'I tell you, lie down! I'll teach you to run about with that scoundrel
of a Jasiek!'
At that moment Slimakowa tapped at the window. 'Josef, come quick,
something has happened to the new cow, she's staggering.'
Slimak let go of Jendrek and ran to the cowshed. The three cows were
standing quietly chewing the cud.
'It has passed off,' said the woman; 'but I tell you a minute ago she
was staggering worse than you did yesterday.'
He examined the cow carefully, but could find nothing wrong with her.
Jendrek had meanwhile slipped away, his father's temper had cooled, and
the matter ended as usual on these occasions.
It was the height of summer. The squire and his wife had gone away, and
the villagers had forgotten all about them. New wool had begun to grow
on the shorn sheep.
The sun was so hot that the clouds fled from the sky into the woods,
and the ground protected itself with what it could find; with dust on
the highroads, grass in the meadows, and heavy crops in the fields.
But human beings had to toil their hardest at this time. At the manor
they were cutting clover and hoeing turnips; in the cottages the women
were piling up the potatoes, while the old women were gathering mallows
for cooling drinks and lime-blossoms against the ague. The priest spent
all his days tracking and taking swarms of bees; Josel, the innkeeper,
was making vinegar. The woods resounded with the voices of children
The corn was getting ripe, and Slimak began to cut the rye the day
after the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. He was in a hurry to
get the work done in two or three days, lest the corn should drop out
in the great heat, and also because he wanted to help with the
harvesting at the manor.
Usually he, Maciek, and Jendrek worked together, alternately cutting
and binding the sheaves. Slimakowa and Magda helped in the early
morning and in the afternoon.
On the first day, while the five were working together, and had reached
the top of the hill, Magda noticed some men showing against the dark
background of the wood, and drew Slimakowa's attention to them. They
all stopped work and looked.
'They must be peasants,' Maciek said; 'they are wearing white smocks.'
'They do not walk like peasants,' said Slimakowa.
'But they are wearing boots up to their knees,' said Slimak.
'Look! they are carrying poles,' Jendrek cried; 'and they are dragging
a rope after them.'
'Ah, they must be surveyors. What can they be after?' reflected Slimak.
'Surely, they are taking a fresh survey; now, Josef, aren't you glad
you did not buy that land?' asked his wife. They took up their work
again, but did not get on very fast, for they could not resist throwing
sidelong glances at the approaching men. It was now quite plain that
they were not peasants, for they wore white coats and had black ribbons
on their hats. Slimak's attention became so absorbed that he lagged
behind, in the place which Magda usually occupied, instead of being at
the head of the party. At last he cried:
'Jendrek, stop cutting; run and find out what they are doing, and if
they are really measuring for a new land-distribution.'
Jendrek was off in a moment, and had soon reached the men. He forgot to
come back. The little party watched him talk to the men for a few
moments, and then becoming busy with the poles.
'I say!' cried Slimakowa, 'he is quite one of the party! Just look, how
he is running along with the line, as if he had never done anything
else in his life. He has never seen a book except in the Jew's shop
window, and yet he can run better than any of them. I wish I had told
him to put on his boots; they will never take him for the son of a
She watched Jendrek with great pride until the party disappeared behind
the line of the hill.
'Something will come of this,' said Slimak, 'either good or bad.'
'Why should it be bad?' asked his wife; 'they may add to our land; what
do you think, Maciek?'
The farm labourer looked embarrassed when he was asked for his opinion,
and pondered until the perspiration flowed from his head.
'Why should it be good?' he said at last. 'When I was working for the
squire at Krzeszowie, and he went bankrupt, just such men as these came
and measured the land, and soon afterwards we had to pay a new tax. No
good ever comes of anything new.'
Jendrek returned towards sunset, quite out of breath. He called out to
his mother that the gentlemen wanted some milk, and had given him
'Give them to your mother at once,' said Slimak; 'they are not for you,
but for the milk.'
Jendrek was almost in tears. 'Why should I give up my money? They say
they will pay for everything they have, and even want to buy butter and
'Are they traders?'
'Oh no, they are great gentlemen, and live in a tent and keep a cook.'
'Gipsies, I dare say!'
Slimakowa had run off at top speed, and now the men appeared,
perspiring, sunburnt, and dusty; nevertheless, they impressed Slimak
and Maciek so much with their grand manner that they took off their
'Which of you is the gospodarz?'
'How long have you lived here?'
'From my childhood.'
'And have you ever seen the river in flood?'
'I should think I had!'
'Do you remember how high the water rises?'
'Sometimes it overflows on to that meadow deep enough to drown a man.'
'Are you quite sure of that?'
'Everybody knows that. Those gaps in the hill have been scooped out by
'The bridge will have to be sixty feet high.'
'Certainly,' said the elder of the two men. 'Can you let us have some
'My wife is getting it ready, if it pleases the gentlemen to come.'
The whole party turned towards the cottage, for the drinking of milk by
such distinguished gentlemen was an important event; it was decided to
stop harvesting for the day.
Chairs and the cherrywood table had been placed in front of the
cottage. A rye loaf, butter, white cheese with caraway seeds, and a
bowl of buttermilk were in readiness.
'Well,' said the men, looking at each other in surprise, 'a nobleman
could not have received us better.'
They ate heartily, praised everything, and finally asked Slimakowa what
they owed her.
'May it be to the gentlemen's health!'
'But we cannot fleece you like this, gospodyni.'
'We don't take money for hospitality. Besides, you have already given
my boy as much as if he had been harvesting a whole day.'
'There!' whispered the younger man to the elder, 'isn't that like
To Slimak they said: 'After such a reception we will promise to build
the station quite near to you.'
'I don't know what you mean?'
'We are going to build a railway.'
Slimak scratched his head.
'What makes you so doubtful?' asked the men.
'I'm thinking that this will turn out badly for us,' Slimak replied; 'I
shan't earn anything by driving.'
The men laughed. 'Don't be afraid, my friend, it will be a very good
thing for everybody, especially for you, as you will be near the
station. And first of all you will sell us your produce and drive us.
Let us begin at once, what do you want for your fowls?'
'I leave it to you, sir.'
'Twenty-five kopeks, then.'
Slimakowa looked at her husband. This was double the amount they had
usually taken. 'You can have them, sir,' she cried.
'That scoundrel of a Jew charged us fifty,' murmured the younger man.
They agreed to buy butter, cheese, crayfish, cucumber, and bread; the
younger man expressing surprise at the cheapness of everything, and the
elder boasting that he always knew how to drive a good bargain. When
they left, they paid Slimakowa sixteen paper roubles and half a silver
rouble, asking her if she was sure that she was not cheating herself.
'God forbid,' she replied. 'I wish I could sell every day at that
'You will, when we have built the railway.'
'May God bless you!' She made the sign of the cross over them, the farm
labourer knelt down, and Slimak took off his cap. They all accompanied
their guests as far as the ravines.
When they returned, Slimak set everyone to work in feverish haste.
'Jagna, get the butter ready; Maciek and Jendrek, go to the river for
the crayfish; Magda, take three score of the finest cucumbers, and
throw in an extra ten. Jesus Mary! Have we ever done business like
this! You will have to buy yourself a new silk kerchief, and a new
shirt for Jendrek.'
'Our luck has come,' said Slimakowa, 'and I must certainly buy a silk
kerchief, or else no one in the village will believe that we have made
so much money.'
'I don't quite like it that the new carriages will go without horses,'
said Slimak; 'but that can't be helped.'
When they took their produce to the engineers' encampment, they
received fresh orders, for there were more than a dozen men, who made
him their general purveyor. Slimak went round to the neighbouring
cottages and bought what he needed, making a penny profit on every
penny he spent, while his customers praised the cheapness of the
produce. After a week the party moved further off, and Slimak found
himself in possession of twenty-five roubles that seemed to have fallen
from the sky, not counting what he had earned for the hire of his
horses and cart, and payment for the days of labour he had lost. But
somehow the money made him feel ashamed.
'Do you know, Jagna,' he said, 'perhaps we ought to go after the
gentlemen and give them back their money.'
'Oh nonsense!' cried the woman, 'trading is always like that. What did
the Jew charge for the chickens? just double your price.'
'But it is the Jew's trade, and besides, he isn't a Christian.'
'Therefore he makes the greater profits. Come, Josef, the gentlemen did
not pay for the things only, but for the trouble you took.'
This, and the thought that everybody who came from Warsaw obviously had
much money to spend, reassured the peasant.
As he and the rest of the family were so much occupied with their new
duties, all the harvesting fell to Maciek's share. He had to go to the
hill from early dawn till late at night, and cut, bind, and shock the
sheaves single-handed. But in spite of his industry the work took
longer than usual, and Slimak hired old Sobieska to help him. She came
at six o'clock, armed with a bottle of 'remedy' for a wound in the leg,
did the work of two while she sang songs which made even Maciek blush,
until the afternoon, and then took her 'remedy'. The cure then pulled
her down so much that the scythe fell from her hand.
'Hey, gospodarz!' she would shout. 'You are raking in the money and
buying your wife silk handkerchiefs, but the poor farm labourers have
to creep on all fours. It's "Cut the corn, Sobieska and Maciek, and I
will brag about like a gentleman!" You will see, he will soon call
himself "Pan Slimaczinski." He is the devil's own son, for ever and
[Footnote 1: The ending _ski_ denotes nobility.]
She would fall into a furrow and sleep until sundown, though she was
paid for a full day's work. As she had a sharp tongue, Slimak had no
wish to offend her. When he haggled about the money, she would kiss his
hand and say: 'Why should you fall out with me, sir? Sell one chicken
more and you'll be all right.'
'Cheek always pays!' thought Maciek.
On the following Sunday, when everyone was ready to go to church,
Maciek sat down and sighed heavily.
'Why, Maciek, aren't you going to church?' asked Slimak, seeing that
something was amiss.
'How can I go to church? You would be ashamed of me.'
'What's the matter with you?'
'Nothing is the matter with me, but my feet keep coming through my
'That's your own fault, why didn't you speak before? Your wages are
due, and I will give you six roubles.'
Maciek embraced his feet....
'But mind you buy the boots, and don't drink away the money.'
They all started; Slimak walked with his wife, Magda with the boys, and
Maciek by himself at a little distance. He dreamt that Slimak would
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.
'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
'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 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
'Why, Maciek, that sounds as if you had a bad conscience,' said the
'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 mouth...it'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,'
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.'
'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
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, and they all burst out crying. Then they embraced the squire's
feet, and he took their heads between his hands 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
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?'
'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
'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
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
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
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!'
'Have the musicians been spilt yet?'
'Not yet, but they will be.'
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.
'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
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
'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!'
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
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
'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
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
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
There was another hubbub in the passage, and the Uhlan burst into the
room, 'For heaven's sake, what are you doing, Wladek?'
'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'
'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
'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.'
'Chaine 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.'
Again the Uhlan violently burst into the room.
'Wladek, you really must come; the Count is mortally offended, and says
he will take his fiancee 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.
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
'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
'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
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
'Old man, have you lived so long in this world, and don't understand
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.
'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 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...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 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 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
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