Part 4 out of 7
'Catch him!' cried Slimak and Maciek simultaneously, but the thief had
escaped to the ravines. When the Germans on horseback came up, Slimak
lit a torch and ran behind the barn. A pig's carcass lay in a puddle.
'That's our hog,' cried Fritz, 'they stole it from under our noses and
while there was a light in the house.'
'Daredevils!' muttered Maciek.
'To tell you the truth,' laughed Earner's farmhand, 'we thought it was
you who had done it.'
'Go to the devil!'
'Let's go after them,' Fritz interrupted quickly.
'Go on! I... steal your hog! indeed!'
'Let me go, father,' begged Jendrek.
'Go indoors! We've saved them a hog and the thieves will revenge
themselves on us; and here they come and accuse me of being a thief
myself.' Fritz Hamer swore at the farm-hand for his clumsiness and
tried to pacify the peasant, but he turned his back on him. Fritz had
lost his zeal for pursuing the thieves, took up his hog and disappeared
into the darkness.
After a few days the police-sergeant drove up, cross-examined every
one, explored the ravines, perspired, made himself muddy, and found no
one. He came to the very just conclusion that the thieves must have
escaped long ago. So he told Slimakowa to put some butter and a
speckled hen into his cart and returned home.
The thieving stopped for a while, and winter came on. The ground was
warmly covered as with a sheepskin; ice as hard as flint froze on the
Bialka, the Lord wrapped the branches of the trees securely in shirts
of snow. But Slimak was still meditating on hasps and bolts.
One evening, as he sat filling the room with smoke from his pipe,
shifting his feet and arriving at the second part of his meditations,
namely that 'What is done too soon is the devil's,' Jendrek excitedly
burst into the room. His mother was busy with the fire and paid no
attention to him, but his father noticed, although they were sparing of
light in the cottage, that his sukmana was torn and he looked bruised
and dishevelled. Looking at him out of the corner of his eyes, Slimak
emptied his pipe and said: 'Someone has been oxing your ears three
'I gave him one better,' said the boy scowling.
As the mother had gone out and did not hear the conversation, the
father did not hurry himself; he cleaned his choked pipe, blew through
it and indifferently inquired, 'Who's been treating you this?'
'That scoundrel, Hermann.' The boy was hitching up his shoulders as if
he had been stung.
'And what were you doing at Earner's when you had been told not to go
'I was looking at the schoolmaster through the window,' said Jendrek
blushing, and added quickly, 'That German dog ran out from the kitchen
and shouted: "You are spying about here, you thief!" "What have I
stolen?" I say, and he: "Nothing yet, but you will steal some day; be
off, or I'll box your ears." "Try!" I say. "I've tried before," says
he; "take this!"'
'That was smart of the Swabian,' said Slimak, 'and did you do nothing
'Why should I do nothing to him? I snatched up a log and hit him over
the head two or three times, but the coward started bleeding and gave
in; I should have liked to have given him more, but they came running
out of their houses and I made off.'
'So they didn't catch you?'
'Bah, how can they catch me, when I run like a hare?' 'Confound the
boy,' said his mother, who had come in, 'the Swabians will beat him
'He can always give them the slip,' said Slimak, lit his pipe, and
resumed his meditations on hasps and bolts.
But these were interrupted the next afternoon by a visit from the
Hamers; their cousin, Hermann, had his head so tightly bandaged that
hardly anything was visible of his face. They stood outside the gate
and shouted to Maciek to call his master. Slimak hastily fastened his
belt and stepped out. 'What do you want?' he said.
'We are going to the police-station to take out a summons against that
Jendrek of yours; look what he has done to Hermann; we have a
certificate from the surgeon that his injuries are serious.'
'He came ogling the schoolmaster's daughter, now he shall ogle his
prison bars,' Hermann added thickly behind his bandages.
Slimak was getting worried.
'You ought to be ashamed of yourselves,' he said, 'to take out a
summons for a bit of boy's nonsense; didn't Hermann box his ears too?
But we don't take out summonses for that sort of thing.'
'Oh, rather! I gave it him,' mumbled Hermann, 'but where's the blood?
where's the doctor's certificate?'
'You're a nice one,' said Slimak bitterly, 'there was no policeman to
certify that it was we who saved you the hog, but when a boy plays a
prank on you, you go to law.'
'Perhaps with you a hog means as much as a man,' sneered Fritz; 'with
us it is different.'
Slimak's meditations now turned from bolts and padlocks to prisons. He
talked the matter over with Maciek.
'When they put our small Jendrek in Court by the side of that big
Hermann, I reckon they won't do much to him.'
'They'll do nothing to him,' agreed the labourer.
'All the same, I should like to know what the punishment is for
thrashing a man.'
'They don't trouble their heads much about it. When Potocka beat her
neighbour over the head with a saucepan, they just fined her.'
'That's true, but I am afraid they think more of the Germans than of
'How could they think more of unbelievers?'
'Look at the police-sergeant, he talks to Hamer as he wouldn't even
talk to Gryb.'
'That is so, but when he has looked round to see that no one is
listening, he tells you that a German is a mangy dog. You see, the
Germans have their Kaiser, but he's nothing like as great as our Czar;
I have it from a soldier who was in the hospital, and he used to say:
"Bah, he's nothing compared to ours!"'
This greatly reassured Slimak, and he went to church with his wife and
son the next Sunday to find out what others, familiar with the ways of
the law, thought of the matter. Maciek remained at home to look after
the dinner and the baby.
It was past noon when Burek began to bark furiously. Maciek looked out
and saw a man dressed like the townspeople standing at the gate; he had
pulled his cap well over his face. The farm-labourer went outside.
'Take pity on us, gospodarz,' said the stranger, 'our sledge has broken
down close by, and I can't mend it, because they have stolen the
hatchet out of my basket last night.'
Maciek looked doubtful. 'Have you come far?'
'Twenty-five miles; my wife and I are driving twelve miles further. I
will give you good vodka and sausages if you will help us.'
Maciek's suspicions lessened when vodka was mentioned. He shook his
head and crossed himself, but ultimately decided that one must help
one's neighbour, fetched the hatchet and went out with the stranger.
He found a one-horse sledge standing near the farm. A woman, even more
smartly dressed than the man, sat huddled up in a corner; she blessed
Maciek in a tearful voice, but her husband did more, he poured out a
large tumblerful of vodka and offered it to the labourer, drinking to
his health first. Maciek apologized, as the ceremony demanded, then
took a long pull, till the tears came into his eyes. He set about
mending the sledge, and although it was a small job and did not take
him more than half an hour, the strangers thanked him extravagantly,
the woman gave him half a sausage and some roast pork, and the man
exclaimed: 'I have travelled far and wide, but I have never found a
more obliging peasant than you are, brother. I should like to leave you
a remembrance. Have you got a bottle?'
'I think I could find one,' said Maciek, in a voice trembling with
delight. The man unceremoniously pushed his wife on one side and drew a
large bottle from underneath the seat.
'We are off now,' he said, 'we will go to the gospodarstwo and you
shall give me some nails in case of another breakdown, and I will leave
you some of this cordial in return. Mind, if your head or your stomach
aches or you are worried and can't sleep, take a glassful of this: all
your worries will at once disappear. Take good care of it and don't on
any account give a drop away, it's a speciality; my grandfather got it
from the monks at Radecznica, it's as good as holy water.'
Maciek went into the house, the stranger remained in the yard, looking
carelessly round the buildings, while Burek barked madly at him. At any
other time the dog's anger would have roused Maciek's suspicion, but
how could one think anything but well of a guest who had already given
vodka and sausages and who was offering more drink? He smilingly
offered a big-bellied bottle to the traveller, who poured half a pint
of the cordial into it, and when he took leave he repeated the warning
that it should be used only in case of need.
Maciek stuffed a piece of rag into the neck of the bottle and hid it in
the stable. He felt a strong desire to taste the drink, if only a drop,
but he resisted.
'Supposing I were to get ill... better keep it.'
He rocked the baby to sleep and then woke her up again to tell her
about the hospital and his broken leg, about the travellers who had
left him such a magnificent present, but nothing could take his
thoughts away from the monks' cordial. The big-bellied bottle seemed to
hover over the pots and pans on the stove, it blossomed out of the
wall, it almost tapped at the window, but Maciek blinked his eyes and
thought: 'Leave me alone, you will come in useful some day!'
Shortly before sunset he heard cheerful singing in the road, and.
quickly stepping outside, he saw the gospodarz and his family returning
from church. They were silhouetted against the red sky in the white
landscape. Jendrek, his head in the air and his arms crossed behind his
back, was walking on the left side of the road, the gospodyni in her
blue Sunday skirt, and her jacket unbuttoned, so that her white chemise
and bare chest were showing, on the right. The gospodarz, his cap awry,
and holding up nis sukmana as for a dance, lurched from right to left
and from left to right, singing. The labourer laughed, not because they
were drunk, but because it pleased him to see them enjoying themselves.
'Do you know, Maciek,' cried Slimak from afar, 'do you know the
Swabians can't hurt us!'
He ran up full tilt and supported himself on Maciek's neck.
'Do you know,' cried the gospodyni, coming up,'we have seen Jasiek Gryb
who knows all about the law; we told him about Jendrek's giving it to
Hermann, and he swore by a happy death that the Court would let Jendrek
off; Jasiek has been tried for these tricks himself, he knows.'
'Let them try and put me in prison!' shouted Jendrek.
It was in this frame of mind that they sat down, but somehow the dinner
was not a success. Slimakowa poured most of the sauerkraut over the
table, the gospodarz had no appetite, and Jendrek had forgotten how to
hold a spoon, scalded his father's foot with soup and finally fell
asleep. His parents followed his example, so Maciek was left to himself
again. The big-bellied bottle started pursuing him immediately. It
availed nothing that he busied himself with the fire and the wick of
the flickering lamp. The snoring around him disposed him to sleep and
the smell of vodka that had been introduced into the room filled him
with longing. In vain he tried to keep off the thoughts that circled
like moths round the light. When he forgot his misery at the hospital,
he thought of the forlornness of the abandoned baby, and when he put
that aside his own needs overwhelmed him again. 'It's no use,' he
muttered, 'I must go to bed.'
He wrapped the child in the sheepskin and went into the stable. He lay
down on the straw, the warmth of the horses tempered the cold, and
Maciek closed his eyes, but sleep would not come; it was too early yet.
As he turned from side to side, his hand came in contact with the
bottle; he pushed it away; but, violating the law of inertia, it thrust
itself irresistibly into his hand; the rag remained between his
fingers, and when he mechanically lifted it to his eyes in the half-
light, the strange vessel leapt to his lips of its own accord. Before
he was conscious of what he was doing, Maciek had pulled a long draft
of the health-giving speciality. He gulped it down and pulled a wry
face. The drink was not only strong, it was nauseous; it simply tasted
like ordinary medicine. 'Well, that wasn't worth longing for!' he
thought, as he stuffed up the neck of the bottle again. He resolved to
be more temperate in future with a liquor which was not distinguished
for a good taste.
Maciek said a prayer and felt warm and calm. He remembered the
home-coming of the gospodarz's family: they all stood before his eyes
as if they were alive. Suddenly Slimak and Jendrek vanished and only
Slimakowa remained near him in her unbuttoned jacket which exposed rows
of corals and her bare white chest. He closed his eyelids and pressed
them with his fingers, so as not to look, but still he saw her, smiling
at him in a strange way. He hid his head in the sheepskin--it was in
vain; the woman stood there and smiled in a way that sent the fever
through his veins. His heart beat violently; he turned his head to the
wall and, terror-stricken, heard her voice whispering close to him:
'Where am I to move to?' groaned Maciek.
A warm hand seemed to embrace his neck.
Then his mattress began to ascend with him, he flew... flew. God I was
he falling or being lifted into the air? he felt as light as a feather,
as smoke. He opened his eyes for a moment and saw stars glittering in a
dark sky over a snowy landscape. How could he be seeing the sky?
No... he must have made a mistake; darkness was surrounding him again.
He wanted to move, but could not; besides, why should he move, when he
felt so extraordinarily comfortable? there was not a thing in the world
that it would be worth while moving a finger for, nothing but sleep
mattered, sleep without awakening. He sighed heavily and slept and
A sensation of pain woke Maciek from a dreamless sleep which must have
lasted about ten hours. He felt himself violently shaken, kicked in the
ribs and on the head, tugged by his arms and legs.
'Get up, you thief... get up!' a voice was shouting at him.
He tried to get up, but turned over on the other side instead. The
blows and tugs recommenced, and the voice, choked with rage, continued:
'Get up! I wish the holy earth had never carried you!'
At last Maciek roused himself and sat up; the light hurt his eyes, his
head felt heavy like a rock; so he closed his eyes again, supported his
head and tried to think; immediately he received a blow in the face
from a fist. When at last he opened his eyes, he saw that it was Slimak
who was standing over him, mad with rage.
'What are you hitting me for?' he asked in amazement.
'Where are the horses, you thief?' shouted Slimak.
'Horses? what horses?'
He was suddenly seized with sickness. Coming to himself a little, he
looked round. Yes, something seemed to be missing from the stable; he
wiped his forehead, looked again... the stable was empty.
'But where are the horses?' he asked.
'Where?' cried Slimak, 'where your brothers have taken them, you
thief.' The labourer held out his hands.
'I never took them out. I haven't stirred from here all night,
something must have happened... I am ill.'
He staggered up and had to support himself.
'What is that? You are trying to make out that you have lost your wits.
You know quite well that the horses have been stolen. Whoever stole
them must have opened the door and led them over you.'
'God help me! no one opened the door, no one led them over me,' cried
Maciek, bursting into sobs.
'Dad! Burek is lying dead behind the fence,' cried Jendrek, who came
running up with his mother.
'They have poisoned him,' said the woman, 'the foam has frozen on his
Maciek sank down in the open door, unable to stand any longer.
'The devil has got him too, he isn't like himself, something has fallen
on him,' said Slimak.
'And may he keep it till he dies,'cried the woman, 'here he is sleeping
in the stable and lets the horses be stolen. May the ground spit him
Jendrek was looking for a stone, but his parents, taking notice of the
man's deathly pallor and his sunken eyes for the first time, restrained
'Maybe they have poisoned him too,' whispered Slimakowa.
Slimak shrugged his shoulders, not knowing what to make of it.
He began to question Maciek: Had anything happened in his absence?
Slowly and with difficulty, but concealing nothing, Maciek told his
'Of course they gave me some filthy stuff, and then they made off with
the horses,' he added, sobbing.
But instead of taking pity on him, Slimak burst out afresh:
'What? you took drink from strangers and never told me anything about
'Why should I have bothered you, gospodarz, when you were a little bit
'What's that to do with you?' bawled Slimak, 'dogs have no right to
notice whether one is drunk or not, they have to be all the more
watchful when one is! You are a thief like the others, only you are
worse. I took you in when you were starving, and you've robbed me in
'Don't talk like that,' groaned Maciek, crawling to Slimak's feet, 'I
have saved a few roubles from my wages, and there is my little chest
and a bit of sheepskin and my sukmana; take it all, but don't say I
robbed you. Your dog has not been more faithful, and they have poisoned
'Don't bother me,' cried Slimak, thrusting him aside, 'the fellow
offers me his wages and his box when the horses were worth twenty-eight
I haven't taken twenty-eight roubles the whole year. If you were my own
son I wouldn't let you off; neither of the boys have ever cost me as
His anger overcame him, he beat himself with his clenched fists.
'Find the horses,' he cried, 'or I will give you in charge, go where
you like, look where you like, but don't show your face here without
them or one of us will die! I loathe you. Take that bastard or we will
let it starve, and be off!'
'I will find the horses,' said Maciek, and drew his old sheepskin round
him with trembling hands; 'perhaps God will help me.'
'The devil will help you, you low scoundrel,' said Slimak, and turned
'And leave your box,' added Jendrek.
'He has paid us out for our kindness,' whimpered Slimakowa, wiping her
eyes. They went into the house.
Not one of them had a kind glance to spare for Maciek, although he was
leaving them forever.
Slowly and painfully he wrapped the child up in an old bit of a shirt
and a shawl, fastened his belt round himself and looked for a stick.
His head was aching as if he were going through a severe illness; he
was unable to reason out the situation. He felt no resentment towards
Slimak for having beaten him and driven him away; the gospodarz was in
the right, of course; neither was he afraid of having no roof over his
head; people like him never had any roof of their own; he was not
thinking of the future. Another thought was torturing him...the horses.
For Slimak the horses were part of his working machinery, for Maciek
they were friends and brothers. Who but they in the whole world had
longed for him, had greeted him heartily when he returned, or looked
after him when he went out? No one but Wojtek and Kasztan. For years
they had shared hardships together. Now they were gone, perhaps led
away into misery, through his, Maciek's, fault.
He fancied he heard them neighing. They were becoming sensible of what
was happening to them and were calling to him for help!
'I am coming, I am coming,' he muttered, took the child on his arm,
seized the stick and limped forth. He did not look round, he would see
the gospodarstwo again when he came back with the horses.
He saw Burek lying stark behind the barn, but he had no thought to
spare for him; he peered for the traces of the horses' feet. There they
were, stamped into the snow as into wax; Kasztan's large feet and the
broken hoof of Wojtek; here the thieves had mounted and ridden off at a
slow trot. How bold, how sure of themselves they had been! But Maciek
will find you! The peasant rancour in him had been awakened. If you
escape to the end of the world he will pursue you; if you dig
yourselves into the ground he will dig you out with his hands; if you
escape to Heaven he will stand at the gate and importune the saints
until they fly all over the universe and give him back the horses!
On the highroad the tracks became less distinct, but they were still
recognizable. Maciek could read the whole history of the peregrination
in them. Here Kasztan had been startled and had shied; here the thief
had dismounted and altered Wojtek's bridle. What gentlemen they were,
these thieves, they came stealing in new boots, such as no gentleman
need have been ashamed of!
Near the church the tracks became confused and, what was worse,
divided. Kasztan had been ridden to the right and Wojtek to the left.
After reflecting for a moment, Maciek followed the latter track,
possibly because it was clearer, but most likely because he loved that
little horse the best. About noon he found himself near the village
where Magda's uncle, the Soltys Grochowski, lived. He turned in there,
hoping for a bite of food; he was hungry and the little girl was
Grochowski was at home and in the middle of receiving a sound rating
from his wife for no particular reason but just for the pleasure of it.
The huge man was sitting on the bench by the wall, with one arm on the
table and the other on the window-sill, listening with an expression of
fixed attention to his wife's homilies; this attention was, however,
assumed, for whenever she buried her head among the pots and pans on
the stove he yawned and stretched himself, pulling a face as if the
conversation had long been distasteful to him.
As his wife was in the habit of relenting before strangers, so as not
to prejudice his office, Grochowski hailed Maciek's arrival gladly, and
ordered food for him and milk for the little girl, adding cold meat and
vodka to the repast when he heard the news that Slimak's horses had
been stolen and that Maciek was applying to him for advice. He even
talked of drawing up a statement, but the necessary implements were not
at hand. So he drew Maciek into the alcove for a long, whispered
conversation, the upshot of which was that they must proceed with
caution upon the track of the thieves, as certain strong influences
tied Grochowski's hands until he had clearer evidence. Maciek was also
given to understand why Jasiek Gryb had entertained the gospodarz and
his family so liberally, and Grochowski even seemed to know the man who
had presented Maciek with the monks' cordial and said that the woman in
the sledge was not a woman at all.
'I will do whatever you tell me, Soltys,' said Maciek, embracing his
knees, 'even if you should send me to my death.'
'It is no use tracking near here,' said the Soltys, 'we know all about
that, but it would be useful to know where the other track leads to.
Follow that as far as you can, and if you find any clue let me know at
once. You ought to be back here by to-morrow.'
'And shall we find the horses?'
'We shall find them even if we had to drag them out of the thieves'
bowels,' said the Soltys, looking fierce.
It was about two o'clock when Maciek was ready to start. The Soltys
hinted that the child had better be left behind, but his wife was so
angry at the suggestion that he desisted. So Maciek tied her up again
in the old bits of clothing and went his way.
He easily found Kasztan's tracks on the highroad and followed them for
an hour, when he thought that he must be nearing the thieves' quarters,
for the tracks had been covered up, and finally led into the ravines.
The frost was pinching harder and harder, but the breathless man
scarcely noticed the cold. From time to time clouds flew over the sky
and snow drifted along the ground in gusts; Maciek searched all the
more eagerly, so as not to miss the track before it should be covered
with fresh drifts. On and on he walked, never even noticing that
darkness was coming on and the snow was falling faster.
Now and then he would sit down for a moment, too tired to go on, but he
jumped up again, for he fancied he heard Kasztan neighing. Probably it
was his aching head that produced these sounds, but at last they became
so loud that he left the track and cut right across the hill in the
direction from which they seemed to proceed. With his last remaining
strength he struggled with the bushes, fell, scrambled to his feet, and
continued. Then the neighing ceased and he found that he was in the
ravines, knee-deep in snow, and night-was falling.
With difficulty he dragged himself on to a knoll to see where he was.
He could see nothing but snow--snow to the right and to the left, here
and there intercepted by bushes, the last streak of light had faded
from the sky.
He tried to descend; in one place the slope was too steep, in another
there were too many bushes; at last he decided on an easier place and
put his stick forward; it gave way, and he fell after it for several
yards. It was fortunate that the snow lay waist-deep in this spot.
The frightened child began its low sobbing, it had always been too weak
to cry heartily. Fear was knocking at Maciek's heart.
'Surely, I can't have lost my way?' he thought, 'these are our ravines
that I know so well, yet I don't see my way out of them.'
He started walking again, alternately in low and deep snow, until he
came upon a place that had been trodden down recently. He knelt down
and felt the tracks with his hands. They were his own footprints.
'Dear me! I've been going round in a circle,' he muttered, and tried
another corridor of ravines which presently led him to the place where
he had slid down the hill. He fancied he heard murmurings overhead and
looked up, but it was only the rustling of the bushes. The wind had
sprung up on the hillside and was driving before it clouds of fine snow
which stung his face and hands like gnats.
'Can it be that my hour has come?' he thought; 'No, no,' he whispered,
'not till I have found the horses, else they will take me for a thief.'
He wrapped the child more closely in the coverings; she had fallen
asleep in spite of shaking and discomfort; he walked about aimlessly,
so as to keep moving.
'I won't be a fool and sit down,' he muttered, 'if I sit down I shall
be frozen, and the thieves will keep the horses.'
The hard snow fell faster and faster, whitening Maciek from head to
foot; the wind swept along the top of the hills, and as he listened to
it, the man was glad that he had not been caught in the open.
'It's quite warm here,' he said, 'but all the same I'm not going to sit
down, I must keep on walking till the morning.'
But it was not yet midnight and Maciek's legs began to refuse
obedience, he could no longer push away the snow with his feet; he
stopped and stamped, but that was even more tiring; he leant against
the sides of the little cavity. The spot was excellent; it was raised
above the ravine, and the little hollow was just large enough to hold a
man; bushes sheltered it against the snow on all sides. But the
crowning advantage was a jutting piece of rock, about the size of a
'No, I won't sit down,' he determined, 'I know I should get
frozen.... It's true,' he added after a while, 'it would not do to go
to sleep, but it can't hurt to sit down for a bit.'
He boldly sat down, drew his cap over his ears and the clothes round
the sleeping child, and decided that he would alternately rest and
stamp, and so await the morning.
'So long as I don't go to sleep,' he kept on reminding himself. He
fancied the air was getting a little warmer and his feet were thawing.
Instead of the cold he felt ants creeping under the soles of his feet.
They crept in among his toes, swarmed over his injured leg, then over
the other, and reached his knees. In a mysterious way one had suddenly
settled on his nose; he wanted to flick it off, but a whole swarm was
sitting on his arms. He decided not to drive them away, for in the
first place they were keeping him awake, and then he rather liked them.
He smiled, as one reached his waist, and did not ask how they came to
be there. It was not surprising that there should be ant-hills in the
ravines, and he forgot that it was winter.
'So long as I don't go to sleep...so long as I don't go to sleep....'
But at last he asked himself 'Why am I not to go to sleep? It's night
and I am in the stable? The thieves might be coming, that's it!'
He grasped his stick more firmly; whispers seemed to be stirring all
'Oho! they are opening the stable door, there is the snow, this time I
will give it to them....'
The thieves must have found out that he was on the watch this time and
made off. Maciek laughed; now he could go to sleep. He straightened his
back, pressed the little girl close.
'Just a moment's sleep,' he reminded himself, 'I've something to do,
but what is it? Ploughing? no, that's done. Water the horses.. the
After midnight the moon dispersed the clouds and the new moon peeped
out and looked straight into the sleeper's face: but the man did not
move. Fresh clouds came up and hid the moon, yet he did not move. He
sat in the hollow of the hill, his head leaning against its side, the
child clasped to his breast.
At last the sun rose, but even then he did not move. He seemed to be
gazing in astonishment at the railway line, not more than twenty steps
away from his resting place.
The sun was high when a signalman came along the permanent way. He
caught sight of the sleeper and shouted, but there was no answer, and
the man approached.
'Heh, father! have you been drinking?' he called out, as he went round
the hollow at a distance. At last, hardly believing his eyes, he went
up to the silent sitter and touched his hand.
Maciek's and the child's faces were hard, as if they had been cast in
wax, hoarfrost lay on his lashes, and frozen moisture stood on the
child's lips. The signalman's arms dropped in astonishment; he wanted
to call for help, but remembered that no one would hear him. He turned
and ran at full speed to the Soltys' office.
In the course of an hour or two a sledge with some men arrived to
remove the bodies. But Maciek's was frozen so hard that it was
impossible to open his arms or straighten his legs, so they put him in
the sledge as he was. He went for his last drive with the child on his
knees, his head resting against the rail, and his face turned upwards,
as though he had done with human reckoning and was recounting his
wrongs to his Creator.
When the mournful procession stopped, a small crowd of peasants, women,
and Jews gathered in front of the Wojt's office. The Wojt, his clerk,
and Grochowski were standing together. A shudder of remorse seized the
latter, he guessed who the man and child were that had been found,
frozen to death. He explained to the crowd what Maciek had told him.
When he had finished, the men turned away, the women groaned, the Jews
spat on the ground; only Jasiek, the son of the rich peasant Gryb,
lighted an expensive cigar and smiled. He put his hands in the pockets
of his sheepskin coat, stuck out first one foot, then the other, to
display his elegant top-boots that reached above his knees, sucked his
cigar, and continued to smile. The men looked at him with aversion, but
the women, although shocked, did not think him repulsive. Was he not a
tall, broadshouldered, graceful lad, with a complexion like milk and
blood, and eyes the colour of a bluebottle, and did he not trim his
moustaches and beard like a nobleman? It was a pity he was not a
foreman with plenty of opportunities of ordering the girls about! The
men, however, were whispering among themselves that he was a scoundrel
who would come to a bad end.
'Certainly it was wrong of Slimak to send the poor wretch away in such
weather,' said the Wojt.
'It was a shame,' murmured the women.
'It's only natural he should be angry when his horses had been stolen,'
said one of the men.
'Driving him away did not bring the horses back, and he will have the
two poor souls on his conscience till he dies,' cried an old woman.
Grochowski was seized with shuddering again.
'It was not so much that Slimak drove him away, but that he himself was
anxious to go,' he said quickly, 'he wanted to track the thieves;' here
he gave a quick glance at Jasiek, who returned it insolently, and
observed that horse-thieves were sharp, and more people might meet
their death in tracking them.
'They may find that there is a limit to it,' said Grochowski.
The policeman now proceeded to examine the corpses, and the Wojt was
standing by with a wry face, as if he had bitten on a peppercorn.
'We must drive them to the district police-court,' he said; 'Stojka,'
turning to the owner of the sledge, 'drive on, we will overtake you
presently. This is the first time that any one in this parish has ever
been frozen to death.'
Stojka demurred and scratched his head, but he took up the reins and
lashed the horses; after all, it was only a few versts, and one need
not look much at the passengers. He walked by the side of the sledge
and Grochowski and a man who was to make closer acquaintance with the
police-court, for spoiling his neighbour's bucket, went with him.
It so happened that, just as the Wojt was dispatching the bodies to the
police-court, the police officer was sending 'Silly Zoska' back to her
native village. A few months after leaving her child in Maciek's care
she had been arrested; the reason was unknown to her. As a matter of
fact she had been accused of begging, vagrancy, and attempted arson.
After the discovery of each new crime, they had taken her from police-
station to prison, from prison to infirmary, from infirmary to another
prison, and so on for a whole year.
During her peregrinations Zoska had behaved with complete indifference;
when she was taken to a new place she would worry at first whether she
would find work. After that she became apathetic and slept the greater
part of the time, on her plank bed, or waiting in corridors and
prison-yards. It was all the same to her. At times she began to long for
freedom and her child, and then she fell into accesses of fury. Now
they were sending her back under escort of two peasants; one carried
the papers relating to her case, and the other had come to keep him
company. She had a boot on one foot and a sandal on the other, a
sukmana in holes, and a handkerchief like a sieve on her head. She
walked quickly in front of the men, as if she were in a hurry to get
back, yet neither the familiar neighbourhood nor the hard frost seemed
to make any impression on her. When the men called out: 'Heh! not so
fast!' she stood as still as a post, and waited till they told her to
'She's quite daft!' said one.
'She's always been like that,' said the other, who had known her a long
time, 'yet she's not bad at rough work.'
A few versts from the village, where the chimneys peeped out from
beyond the snowy hills, they came upon the little cortege. The
attendants, noticing something unusual in the look of it, stopped and
talked to the Soltys.
'Look, Zoska,' said the latter to the woman who was standing by
indifferently, 'that is your little girl.'
She approached without seeming to understand; slowly, however, her face
acquired a human expression.
'What's fallen upon them?'
'They have been frozen.'
'Why have they been frozen?'
'Slimak drove them out of the house.'
'Slimak drove them out of the house?' she repeated, fingering the
bodies, 'yes, that's my little girl, she's grown a bit; whoever heard
of a child being frozen to death?... she was meant to come to a bad
end. As God loves me, yes, that's my girl, my little girl--they've
murdered her; look at her!' she suddenly became animated.
'Drive on,' said the Soltys, 'we must be getting on.'
The horses started, Zoska tried to get into the sledge.
'What are you doing?' cried her attendants, pulling her back.
'That's my little girl!' cried Zoska, holding on.
'What if she is yours?' said the Soltys, 'there's one road for you and
another for her.'
'She's my little girl, mine!' With both hands the woman held on to the
sledge, but the peasant whipped up the horses and she fell to the
ground; she grasped the runners and was dragged along for several
'Don't behave like a lunatic,' cried the men, detaching her with
difficulty from the fast-moving sledge; she would have run after it,
but one of them knelt on her feet and the other held her by the
'She's my little girl; Slimak has let her freeze to death.... God
punish him, may he freeze to death himself!' she screamed.
Gradually, as the sledge moved away, she calmed down, her livid face
assumed its copper colour, and her eyes became dull. She fell back into
her old apathy.
'She's forgotten all about it,' said one of her companions.
'These lunatics are often happier than other people,' answered the
friend. Then they walked on in silence. Nothing was heard but the
creaking snow under their feet.
The loss of his horses had almost driven Slimak crazy. Beating Maciek
and kicking him out had not exhausted his anger. He felt the room
oppressive, walked out into the yard and ran up and down with clenched
fists and bloodshot eyes, waiting for a chance to vent his temper.
He remembered that he ought to feed the cows and went into the stable,
where he pushed the animals about, and when one clumsily trod on his
foot, he seized a fork and beat her mercilessly. He kicked Burek's body
behind the barn. 'You damned dog, if you had not taken bread from
strangers, I should still have my horses!'
He returned to the room and threw himself on the bench with such
violence that he upset the block for wood-chopping. Jendrek laughed,
but his father unbuckled his belt and did not stop beating him till the
boy crept, bleeding, under the bench. With the belt in his hand Slimak
waited for his wife to make a remark. But she remained silent, only
holding on to the chimney-piece for support.
'What makes you stagger? Haven't you got over yesterday's vodka?'
'Something's wrong with me,' she answered low.
He decided to strap on his belt. 'What's wrong?'
'I can't see, and there's a noise in my ears. Is any one whistling?'
'Don't drink vodka and you'll hear no noises,' he said, spitting, and
went out. It surprised him that she had made no remark after the
thrashing he had given Jendrek, and having no one to beat, he seized an
axe and chopped wood until nightfall, eating nothing all day. Logs and
splinters fell round him, he felt as if he were revenging himself on
his enemies, and when he left off, stiff and tired, his shirt soaked
with perspiration, his anger had gone from him.
He was surprised to find no one in the room and peeped into the alcove;
Slimakowa was lying on the bed.
'What's the matter'
'I'm not well, but it's nothing.'
'The fire has gone out.'
'Out?' she asked vaguely, raising herself. She got up and lighted the
fire with difficulty, her husband watching her.
'You see,' he said presently, 'you got hot yesterday and then you would
drink water out of the Jew's pewter pot and unbutton your jacket. You
have caught cold.'
'It's nothing,' she said ill-humouredly, pulled herself together and
warmed up the supper. Jendrek crept out and took a spoon, but cried
instead of eating.
During the night, at about the hour when the unhappy Maciek was drawing
his last breath in the ravines, Slimakowa was seized with violent fits
of shivering. Slimak covered her with his sheepskin and it passed off.
She got up in the morning, and although she complained of pains, she
went about her work. Slimak was depressed.
Towards evening a sledge stopped at the gate and the innkeeper Josel
entered with a strange expression on his face. Slimak's conscience
'The Lord be praised,' said Josel.
A silence ensued.
'You have nothing to ask?' said the Jew.
'What should I have to ask?' Slimak looked into his eyes and
involuntarily grew pale.
'To-morrow,' Josel said slowly, 'to-morrow Jendrek's trial is coming on
for violence to Hermann.'
'They'll do nothing to him.'
'I expect he will have to sit in jail for a bit.'
'Then let him sit, it will cure him of fighting.'
Again silence fell. The Jew shook his head; Slimak's alarm grew.
He screwed up his courage at last and asked: 'What else?'
'What's the use of making many words?' said the Jew, holding up his
hands, 'Maciek and the child have been frozen to death.'
Slimak sprang to his feet and looked for something to throw at the Jew,
but staggered and held on to the wall. A hot wave rushed over him, his
legs shook. Then he wondered why he should have been seized with fear
'In the ravines close to the railway line.'
'You know quite well that it was yesterday when you drove them out.'
Slimak's anger was rising.
'As I live! the Jew is a liar! Frozen to death? What did he go to the
ravines for? are there no cottages in the world?'
The innkeeper shrugged his shoulders and got up.
'You can believe it or not, it's all the same to me, but I myself saw
them being driven to the police-station.'
'Ah well! What harm can they do to me, because Maciek has been frozen?'
'Perhaps men can't do you harm, but, man, before God! or don't you
believe in God?' the Jew asked from the other side of the door, his
burning eyes fixed on Slimak.
The peasant stood still and listened to his heavy tread down to the
gate and to the sound of his departing sledge. He shook himself, turned
round and met Jendrek's eyes looking fixedly at him from the far
'Why should I be to blame?' he muttered. Suddenly an annual sermon,
preached by an old priest, flashed through his mind; he seemed to hear
the peculiar cadence of his voice as he said: 'I was an hungered and ye
gave me no meat.... I was a stranger and ye took me not in.'
'By God, the Jew is lying,' he exclaimed. These words seemed to break
the spell; he felt sure Maciek and the child were alive, and he almost
went out to call them in to supper.
'A low Jew, that Josel,' he said to his wife, while he covered her
again with the sheepskin, when her shivering-fits returned. Nothing
should induce him to believe that story.
Next day the village Soltys drove up with the summons for Jendrek.
'His trial does not come on till to-morrow,' he said, 'but as I was
driving that way, I thought he might as well come with me.'
Jendrek grew pale and silently put on his new sukmana and sheepskin.
'What will they do to him?' his father asked peevishly.
'Eh! I dare say he'll get a few days, perhaps a week.'
Slimak slowly pulled a rouble out of a little packet.
'And...Soltys, have you heard what the accursed Jew has been saying
about Maciek and the child being frozen to death?'
'How shouldn't I have heard?' said the Soltys, reluctantly; 'it's
'Yes, of course. But,' he added, 'every one understands that it's not
your fault. He didn't look after the horses and you discharged him. No
one told him to go down into the ravines.
He must have been drunk. The poor wretch died through his own
Jendrek was ready to start, and embraced his parents' knees. Slimak
gave him the rouble, tears came into his eyes; his mother, however,
showed no sign of interest.
'Jagna,' Slimak said with concern, 'Jendrek is going to his trial.'
'What of that?' she answered with a delirious look.
'Are you very ill?'
'No, I'm only weak.'
She went into the alcove and Slimak remained alone. The longer he sat
pondering the lower his head dropped on to his chest. Half dozing, he
fancied he was sitting on a wide, grey plain, no bushes, no grass, not
even stones were to be seen; there was nothing in front of him; but at
his side there was something he dared not look at. It was Maciek with
the child looking steadily at him.
No, he would not look, he need not look! He need see nothing of him,
except a little bit of his sukmana...perhaps not even that!
The thought of Maciek was becoming an obsession. He got up and began to
busy himself with the dishes.
'What am I coming to? It doesn't do to give way!'
He pulled himself together, fed the cattle, ran to the river for water.
It was so long since he had done these things that he felt rejuvenated,
and but for the thought of Maciek he would have been almost cheerful.
His gloom returned with the dusk. It was the silence that tormented him
most. Nothing stirred but the mice behind the boards. The voice was
haunting him again: 'I was a stranger and ye took me not in.'
'It's all the fault of those scoundrel Swabians that everything is
going wrong with me,' he muttered, and began to count his losses on the
window-pane: 'Stasiek, that's one, the cow two, the horses four,
because the thieves did that out of spite for the hog, Burek five,
Jendrek six, Maciek and the child eight, and Magda had to leave, and my
wife is ill with worry, that makes ten. Lord Christ...!'
Trembling seized him and he gripped his hair; he had never in his life
felt fear like this, though he had looked death in the face more than
once. He had suddenly caught a glimpse of the power the Germans were
exercising, and it scared him. They had destroyed all his life's work,
and yet you could not bring it home to them. They had lived like
others, ploughed, prayed, taught their children; you could not say they
were doing any wrong, and yet they had made his home desolate simply by
being there. They had blasted what was near them as smoke from a kiln
withers all green things.
Not until this moment had the thought ever come to him: 'I am too close
to them! The gospodarstwos farther off do not suffer like this. What
good is the land, if the people on it die?'
This new aspect was so horrible to him that he felt he must escape from
it; he glanced at his wife, she was asleep. The cadence of the priest's
voice began to haunt him again.
Steps were approaching through the yard. The peasant straightened
himself. Could it be Jendrek? The door creaked. No, it was a strange
hand that groped along the wall in the darkness. He drew back, and his
head swam when the door opened and Zoska stood on the threshold.
For a moment both stood silent, then Zoska said:
She began rubbing her hands over the fire.
The idea of Maciek and the child and Zoska had become confused in
Slimak's mind; he looked at her as if she were an apparition from the
other world. 'Where do you come from?' His voice was choked.
'They sent me back to the parish and told me to look out for work. They
said they wouldn't keep loafers.'
Seeing the food in the saucepan, she began to lick her lips like a dog.
'Pour out a basin of soup for yourself.'
She did as she was told.
'Don't you want a servant?' she asked presently.
'I don't know; my wife is ill.'
'There you are! It's quiet here. Where's Magda?'
'Sent up for trial.'
'There you are! Stasiek?'
'Drowned last summer,' he whispered, fearful lest Maciek's and the
little girl's turn should come next.
But she ate greedily like a wild animal, and asked nothing further.
'Does she know?' he thought.
Zoska had finished and struck her hand cheerfully on her knee. He took
'Can I stop the night?'
Uneasiness seized him; any other guest would have been a blessing in
his solitude, but Zoska.... If she did not know the truth, what ill
wind had blown her here? And if she knew?...'
He reflected. In the intense silence suddenly the priest's voice
started again: 'I was a stranger and ye took me not in.'
'All right, stop here, but you must sleep in this room.'
'Or in the barn?'
He hardly knew what it was that he feared; there was a vague sense of
misfortune in the air which was tormenting him.
The fire died down. Zoska lay down on the bench in her rags and Slimak
went into the alcove. He sat on the bed, determined to be on the watch.
He did not know that this strange state of mind is called 'nerves'. Yet
a kind of relief had come in with Zoska; she had driven away the
spectre of Maciek and the child. But an iron ring was beginning to
press on his head. This was sleep, heavy sleep, the companion of great
anguish. He dreamt that he was split in two; one part of him was
sitting by his sick wife, the other was Maciek, standing outside the
window, where sunflowers bloomed in the summer. This new Maciek was
unlike the old one, he was gloomy and vindictive.
'Don't believe,' said the strange guest, 'that I shall forgive you.
It's not so much that I got frozen, that might happen to anyone the
worse for drink, but you drove me away for no fault of mine after I had
served you so long. And what harm had the child done to you? Don't turn
away! Pass judgment on yourself for what you have done. God will not
let these wrongs be done and keep silent.'
'What shall I say?' thought Slimak, bathed in perspiration. 'He is
telling the truth, I am a scoundrel. He shall fix the punishment,
perhaps he will get it over quickly.'
His wife moved and he opened his eyes, but closed them again. A rosy
brightness filled the room, the frost glittered in flowers on the
window panes. 'Daylight?' he thought.
No, it was not daylight, the rosy brightness trembled. A smell of
burning was heavy in the room.
He looked into the room; Zoska had disappeared.
'I knew it!' he exclaimed, and ran out into the yard.
His house was indeed on fire; the roof towards the highroad was alight,
but owing to the thick layers of snow the flames spread but slowly; he
could still have saved the house, but he did not even think of this.
'Get up, Jagna,' he cried, running back into the alcove, 'the house is
'Leave me alone,' said the delirious woman, covering her head with the
sheepskin. He seized her and, stumbling over the threshold, carried her
into the shed, fetched her clothes and bedding, broke open the chest
and took out his money; finally he threw everything he could lay hands
on out of the window. Here was at least something tangible to fight.
The whole roof was now ablaze; smoke and flames were coming into the
room from the boarded ceiling. He was dragging the bench through the
brightly illuminated yard when he happened to look at the barn; he
stood petrified. Flames were licking at it, and there stood Zoska
shaking her clenched fist at him and shouting: 'That's my thanks to
you, Slimak, for taking care of my child, now you shall die as she
She flew out of the yard and up the hill; he could see her by the light
of the fire, dancing and clapping her hands.
'Fire, fire!' she shouted.
Slimak reeled like a wild animal after the first shot. Then he slowly
went towards the barn and sat down, not thinking of seeking help. This
was the beginning of the divine punishment for the wrong he had done.
'We shall all die!' he murmured.
Both buildings were burning like pillars of fire, and in spite of the
frost Slimak felt hot in the shed. Suddenly shouts and clattering came
from the settlement; the Germans were coming to his assistance. Soon
the yard was swarming with them, men, women and children with hand-
fire-engines and buckets. They formed into groups, and at Fritz Hamer's
command began to pull down the burning masses and to put out the fire.
Laughing and emulating each other in daring, they went into the fire as
into a dance; some of the most venturesome climbed up the walls of the
burning buildings. Zoska approached once more from the side of the
'Never mind the Germans helping you, you will die all the same,' she
'Who is that?' shouted the settlers, 'catch her!'
But Zoska was too quick for them.
'I suppose it was she who set fire to your house?' asked Fritz.
'No one else but she.'
Fritz was silent for a moment.
'It would be better for you to sell us the land.'
The peasant hung his head....
The barn could not be saved, but the walls of the cottage were still
standing; some of the people were busy putting out the fire, others
surrounded the sick woman.
'What are you going to do?' Fritz began again.
'We will live in the stable.'
The women whispered that they had better be taken to the settlement,
but the men shook their heads, saying the woman might be infectious.
Fritz inclined to this opinion and ordered her to be well wrapped up
and taken into the stable.
'We will send you what you need,' he said.
'God reward you,' said Slimak, embracing his knees.
Fritz took Hermann aside.
'Drive full speed to Wolka,' he said, 'and fetch miller Knap; we may be
able to settle this affair to-night.'
'It's high time we did,' replied the other, audibly, 'we shan't hold
out till the spring unless we do.'
Nevertheless, he took leave benevolently. Bending over the sick woman
he said: 'She is quite unconscious.'
But in a strangely decided voice she ejaculated: 'Ah! unconscious!'
He drew back in confusion. 'She is delirious,' he said.
At daybreak the Germans brought the promised help, but Slimak paced
backwards and forwards among the ruins of his homestead, from which the
smell of smouldering embers rose pungently. He looked at his household
goods, tumbled into the yard. How many times had he sat on that bench
and cut notches and crosses into it when a boy. That heap of
smouldering ruins represented his storehouse and the year's crop. How
small the cottage looked now that it was reduced to walls, and how
large the chimney! He took out his money, hid it under a heap of dry
manure in the stable and strolled about again. Up the hill he went,
with a feeling that they were talking about him in the village and
would come to his help. But there was no one to be seen on the
boundless covering of snow; here and there smoke rose from the
His imagination, keener than usual, conjured up old pictures. He
fancied he was harrowing on the hill with the two chestnuts who were
whisking their tails under his nose; the sparrows were twittering,
Stasiek gazing into the river; by the bridge his wife was beating the
linen, he could hear the resounding smacks, while the squire's
brother-in-law was wildly galloping up and down the valley. Jendrek and
Magda were answering each other in snatches of songs....
Suddenly he was awakened from his dreams by the stench of his burnt
cottage; he looked up, and everything he saw became abominable to him.
The frozen river, into which his child would never gaze again; the
empty, hideous homestead; he longed to escape from it all and go far
away and forget Stasiek and Maciek and the whole accursed gospodarstwo.
He could buy land more cheaply elsewhere with the money he would get
from the Germans. What was the good of the land if it was ruining the
people on it?
He went into the stable and lay down near his wife, who was moaning
deliriously, and soon fell asleep.
At noon old Hamer appeared, accompanied by a German woman who carried
two bowls of hot soup. He stood over Slimak and poked him with his
'Hey, get up!'
Slimak roused himself and looked about heavily; seeing the hot food he
ate greedily. Hamer sat down in the doorway, smoking his pipe and
watching Slimak; he nodded contentedly to himself.
'I've been down to the village to ask Gryb and the other gospodarze to
come and help you, for that is a Christian duty....'
He waited for the peasant's thanks, but Slimak went on eating and did
not look at him.
'I told them they ought to take you in; but they said, God was
punishing you for the death of the labourer and the child and they
didn't wish to interfere. They are no Christians.'
Slimak had finished eating, but he remained silent.
'Well, what are you going to do?'
Slimak wiped his mouth and said: 'I shall sell.' Hamer poked his pipe
Hamer again busied himself with his pipe.
'All right! I am willing to buy, as you have fallen upon bad times. But
I can only give you seventy roubles.'
'You were giving a hundred not long ago.'
'Why didn't you take it?'
'That's true, why didn't I take it? Everyone profits as he can.'
'Have you never tried to profit?'
'Then will you take it?'
'Why shouldn't I take it?'
'We will settle the matter at my house to-night.'
'The sooner the better.'
'Well, since it is so,' Hamer added after a while, 'I will give you
seventy-five roubles, and you shan't be left to die here. You and your
wife can come to the school; you can spend the winter with us and I
will give you the same pay as my own farm-labourers.'
Slimak winced at the word 'farm-labourer', but he said nothing.
'And your gospodarze,' concluded Hamer, 'are brutes. They will do
nothing for you.'
Before sunset a sledge conveyed the unconscious woman to the
settlement. Slimak remained, recovered his money from under the manure,
collected a few possessions and milked the cows.
The dumb animals looked reproachfully at him and seemed to ask: 'Are
you sure you have done the best you could, gospodarz?'
'What am I to do?' he returned, 'the place is unlucky, it is bewitched.
Perhaps the Germans can take the spell away, I can't.'
He felt as if his feet were being held to the ground, but he spat at
it. 'Much I have to be thankful to you for! Barren land, far from
everybody so that thieves may profit!' He would not look back.
On the way he met two German farm-labourers, who had come to spend the
night in the stable; as he passed them, they laughed.
'Catch me spending the winter with you scoundrels! I'm off directly the
wife is well and the boy out of jail.'
A black shadow detached itself from the gate when he reached the
settlement, 'Is that you, schoolmaster?'
'Yes. So you have consented after all to sell your land?'
Slimak was silent.
'Perhaps it's the best thing you can do. If you can't make much of it
yourself, at least you can save others.' He looked round and lowered
his voice. 'But mind you bargain well, for you are doing them a good
turn. Miller Knap will pay cash down as soon as the contract has been
signed and give his daughter to Wilhelm. Otherwise Hirschgold will turn
the Hamers out at midsummer and sell the land to Gryb. They have a
heavy contract with the Jew.'
'What? Gryb would buy the settlement?'
'Indeed he would. He is anxious to settle his son too, and Josel has
been sniffing round for a month past. So there's your chance, bargain
'Why, damn it,' said Slimak, 'I would rather have a hundred Germans
than that old Judas.'
A door creaked and the schoolmaster changed the conversation. 'Come
this way, your wife is in the schoolroom.'
'Is that Slimak?' Fritz called out.
'It is I.'
'Don't stay long with your wife, she is being looked after, and we want
you at daybreak; you must sleep in the kitchen.'
The noise of loud conversation and clinking of glasses came from the
back of the house, but the large schoolroom was empty, and only lighted
by a small lamp. His wife was lying on a plank bed; a pungent smell of
vinegar pervaded the room. That smell took the heart out of Slimak;
surely his wife must be very ill! He stood over her; her eye-lashes
twitched and she looked steadily at him.
'Is it you, Josef?'
'Who else should it be?'
Her hands moved about restlessly on the sheepskin; she said distinctly:
'What are you doing, Josef, what are you doing?'
'You see I am standing here.'
'Ah yes, you are standing there...but what are you doing? I know
everything, never fear!'
'Go away, gospodarz,' hurriedly cried the old woman, pushing him
towards the door, 'she is getting excited, it isn't good for her.'
'Josef!' cried Slimakowa, 'come back! Josef, I must speak to you!' The
'You are doing no good,' whispered the schoolmaster, 'she is rambling,
she may go to sleep when you are out of sight.'
He drew Slimak into the passage, and Fritz Hamer at once took him to
the further room.
Miller Knap and old Hamer were sitting at a brightly lighted table
behind their beer mugs, blowing clouds of smoke from their pipes. The
miller had the appearance of a huge sack of flour as he sat there in
his shirtsleeves, holding a full pot of beer in his hand and wiping the
perspiration off his forehead. Gold studs glittered in his shirt.
'Well, you are going to let us have your land at last?' he shouted.
'I don't know,' said the peasant in a low voice, 'maybe I shall sell
it.' The miller roared with laughter.
'Wilhelm,' he bellowed, as if Wilhelm, who was officiating at the
beer-barrel on the bench, were half a mile off, 'pour out some beer for
this man. Drink to my health and I'll drink to yours, although you
never used to bring me your corn to grind. But why didn't you sell us
your land before?'
'I don't know,' said the peasant, taking a long pull.
'Fill up his glass,' shouted the miller, 'I will tell you why; it's
because you don't know your own mind. Determination is what you want.
I've said to myself: I will have a mill at Wolka, and a mill at Wolka I
have, although the Jews twice set fire to it. I said: My son shall be a
doctor, and a doctor he will be. And now I've said: Hamer, your son
must have a windmill, so he must have a windmill. Pour out another
glass, Wilhelm, good beer...eh? my son-in-law brews it. What? no more
beer? Then we'll go to bed.'
Fritz pushed Slimak into the kitchen, where one of the farm-hands was
asleep already. He felt stupefied; whether it was with the beer or with
Knap's noisy conversation, he could not tell. He sat down on his plank
bed and felt cheerful. The noise of conversation in German reached him
from the adjoining room; then the Hamers left the house. Miller Knap
stamped about the room for a while; presently his thick voice repeated
the Lord's prayer while he was pulling off his boots and throwing them
into a corner: 'Amen amen,' he concluded, and flung himself heavily
upon the bed; a few moments later noises as if he were being throttled
and murdered proclaimed that he was asleep.
The moon was throwing a feeble light through the small squares of the
Between waking and sleeping Slimak continued to meditate: 'Why
shouldn't I sell? It's better to buy fifteen acres of land elsewhere,
than to stay and have Jasiek Gryb as a neighbour. The sooner I sell,
the better.' He got up as if he wished to settle the matter at once,
laughed quietly to himself and felt more and more intoxicated.
Then he saw a human shadow outlined against the window pane; someone
was trying to look into the room. The peasant approached the window and
became sober. He ran into the passage and pulled the door open with
trembling hands. Frosty air fanned his face. His wife was standing
outside, still trying to look through the window.
'Jagna, for God's sake, what are you doing here? Who dressed you?'
'I dressed myself, but I couldn't manage my boots, they are quite
crooked. Come home,' she said, drawing him by the hand.
'Where, home? Are you so ill that you don't know our home is burnt
down? Where will you go on a bitter night like this?'
Hamer's mastiffs were beginning to growl. Slimakowa hung on her
husband's arm. 'Come home, come home,' she urged stubbornly, 'I will
not die in a strange house, I am a gospodyni, I will not stay here with
the Swabians. The priests would not even sprinkle holy water on my
She pulled him and he went; the dogs went after them for a while
snapping at their clothes; they made straight for the frozen river, so
as to reach their own nest the sooner. On the riverbank they stopped
for a moment, the tired woman was out of breath.
'You have let yourself be tempted by the Germans to sell them your
land! You think I don't know. Perhaps you will say it is not true?' she
cried, looking wildly into his eyes. He hung his head.
'You traitor, you son of a dog!' she burst out. 'Sell your land! You
would sell the Lord Jesus to the Jews! Tired of being a gospodarz, are
you? What is Jendrek to do? And is a gospodyni to die in a stranger's
She drew him into the middle of the frozen river. 'Stand here, Judas,'
she cried, seizing him by the hands. 'Will you sell your land? Listen!
Sell it, and God will curse you and the boy. This ice shall break if
you don't give up that devil's thought! I won't give you peace after
death, you shall never sleep! When you close your eyes I will come and
open them again...listen!' she cried in a paroxysm of rage, 'if you
sell the land, you shall not swallow the holy sacrament, it shall turn
to blood in your mouth.'
'Jesus!' whispered the man.
'...Where you tread, the grass shall be blasted! You shall throw a
spell on everyone you look at, and misfortune shall befall them.'
'Jesus...Jesus!' he groaned, tearing himself from her and stopping his
'Will you sell the land?' she cried, with her face close to his. He
shook his head. 'Not if you have to draw your last breath lying on
'Not though I had to draw...so help me God!'
The woman was staggering; her husband carried her to the other bank and
reached the stable, where the two farm labourers were installed.
'Open the door!' He hammered until one of them appeared.
'Clear out! I am going to put my wife in here.'
They demurred and he kicked them both out. They went off, cursing and
Slimak laid his wife down on the warm litter and strolled about the
yard, thinking that he must presently fetch help for her and a doctor.
Now and then he looked into the stable; she seemed to be sleeping
quietly. Her great peacefulness began to strike him, his head was
swimming, he heard noises in his ears; he knelt down and pulled her by
the hand; she was dead, even cold.
'Now I don't care if I go to the devil,' he said, raked some straw into
a corner and was asleep within a few minutes.
It was afternoon when he was at last awakened by old Sobieska.
'Get up, Slimak! your wife is dead! God's faith! dead as a stone.'
'How can I help it?' said the peasant, turning over and drawing his
sheepskin over his head.
'But you must buy a coffin and notify the parish.'
'Let anyone who cares do that.'
'Who will do it? In the village they say it's God's punishment on you.
And won't the Germans take it out of you! That fat man has quarrelled
with them. Josel says you are now reaping the benefit of selling your
fowls: he threatened me if I came here to see you. Get up now!'
'Let me be or I'll kick you!'
'You godless man, is your wife to lie there without Christian burial?'
He advanced his boot so vehemently that the old woman ran screaming out
along the highroad.
Slimak pushed to the door and lay down again. A hard
peasant-stubbornness had seized him. He was certain that he was past
salvation. He neither accused himself nor regretted anything; he only
wanted to be left to sleep eternally. Divine pity could have saved him,
but he no longer believed in divine pity, and no human hand would do so
much as give him a cup of water.
While the sound of the evening-bells floated through the air, and the
women in the cottages whispered the Angelus, a bent figure approached
the gospodarstwo, a sack on his back, a stick in his hand; the glory of
the setting sun surrounded him. Such as these are the 'angels' which
the Lord sends to people in the extremity of their sorrow.
It was Jonah Niedoperz, the oldest and poorest Jew in the
neighbourhood; he traded in everything and never had any money to keep
his large family, with whom he lived in a half-ruined cottage with
broken windowpanes. Jonah was on his way to the village and was
meditating deeply. Would he get a job there? would he live to have a
dinner of pike on the Sabbath? would his little grandchildren ever have
two shirts to their backs?
'Aj waj!' he muttered, 'and they even took the three roubles from me!'
He had never forgotten that robbery in the autumn, for it was the
largest sum he had ever possessed.
His glance fell on the burnt homestead. Good God! if such a thing
should ever befall the cottage where his wife and daughters,
sons-in-law and grandchildren lived! His emotion grew when he heard the
cows lowing miserably. He approached the stable.
'Slimak! My good lady gospodyni!' he cried, tapping at the door. He was
afraid to open it lest he should be suspected of prying into other
'Who is that?' asked Slimak.
'It's only I, old Jonah,' he said, and peeped in, 'but what's wrong
with your honours?' he asked in astonishment.
'My wife is dead.' 'Dead? how dead? what do you mean by such a joke?
Ajwaj! really-dead?' He looked attentively at her.
'Such a good gospodyni...what a misfortune, God defend us! And you are
lying there and don't see about the funeral?'
'There may as well be two,' murmured the peasant.
'How two? are you ill?'
The Jew shook his head and spat. 'It can't be like this; if you won't
move I will go and give notice; tell me what to do.'
Slimak did not answer. The cows began to low again.
'What is the matter with the cows?' the Jew asked interestedly.
'I suppose they want water.'
'Then why don't you water them?'
No answer came. The Jew looked at Slimak and waited, then he tapped his
forehead. 'Where is the pail, gospodarz?'
'Leave me alone.'
But Jonah did not give in. He found the pail, ran to the ice-hole and
watered the cows; he had sympathy for cows, because he dreamt of
possessing one himself one day, or at least a goat. Then he put the
pail close to Slimak. He was exhausted with this unusually hard work.
'Well, gospodarz, what is to happen now?'
His pity touched Slimak, but failed to rouse him. He raised his head.
'If you should see Grochowski, tell him not to sell the land before
Jendrek is of age.'
'But what am I to do now, when I get to the village?'
Slimak had relapsed into silence.
The Jew rested his chin in his hand and pondered for a while; at last
he took his bundle and stick and went off. The miserable old man's pity
was so strong that he forgot his own needs and only thought of saving
the other. Indeed, he was unable to distinguish between himself and his
fellow-creature, and he felt as if he himself were lying on the straw
beside his dead wife and must rouse himself at all costs.
He went as fast as his old legs would carry him straight to Grochowski;
by the time he arrived it was dark. He knocked, but received no answer,
waited for a quarter of an hour and then walked round the house.
Despairing at last of making himself heard, he was just going to
depart, when Grochowski suddenly confronted him, as if the ground had
'What do you want, Jew?' asked the huge man, concealing some long
object behind his back.
'What do I want?' quavered the frightened Jew, 'I have come straight
from Slimak's. Do you know that his house is burnt down, his wife is
dead, and he is lying beside her, out of his wits? He talks as if he
had a filthy idea in his head, and he hasn't even watered the cows.'
'Listen, Jew,' said Grochowski fiercely, 'who told you to come here and
lie to me? is it those horse-stealers?'
'What horse-stealers? I've come straight from Slimak....'
'Lies! You won't draw me away from here, whatever you do.'
The Jew now perceived that it was a gun which Grochowski was hiding
behind his back, and the sight so unnerved him that he nearly fell
down. He fled at full speed along the highroad. Even now, however, he
did not forget Slimak, but walked on towards the village to find the
The priest had been in the parish for several years. He was middle-aged
and extremely good-looking, and possessed the education and manners of
a nobleman. He read more than any of his neighbours, hunted, was
sociable, and kept bees. Everybody spoke well of him, the nobility
because he was clever and fond of society, the Jews because he would
not allow them to be oppressed, the settlers because he entertained
their Pastors, the peasants because he renovated the church, conducted
the services with much pomp, preached beautiful sermons, and gave to
the poor. But in spite of this there was no intimate touch between him
and his simple parishioners. When they thought of him, they felt that
God was a great nobleman, benevolent and merciful, but not friends with
the first comer. The priest felt this and regretted it. No peasant had
ever invited him to a wedding or christening. At first he had tried to
break through their shyness, and had entered into conversations with
them; but these ended in embarrassment on both sides and he left it
off. 'I cannot act the democrat,' he thought irritably.
Sometimes when he had been left to himself for several days owing to
bad roads, he had pricks of conscience.
'I am a Pharisee,' he thought; 'I did not become a priest only to
associate with the nobility, but to serve the humble.'
He would then lock himself in, pray for the apostolic spirit, vow to
give away his spaniel and empty his cellar of wine.
But as a rule, just as the spirit of humility and renunciation was
beginning to be awakened, Satan would send him a visitor.
'God have mercy! fate is against me,' he would mutter, get up from his
knees, give orders for the kitchen and cellar, and sing jolly songs and
drink like an Uhlan a quarter of an hour afterwards.
To-night, at the time when Jonah was drawing near to the Parsonage, he
was getting ready for a party at a neighbouring landowner's to meet an
engineer from Warsaw who would have the latest news and be entertained
exceptionally well, for he was courting the landowner's daughter. The
priest was longing feverishly for the moment of departure, for lie had
been left to himself for several days. He could hardly bear the look of
his snow-covered courtyard any more, having no diversion except
watching a man chop wood, and hearing the cawing of rooks. He paced to
and fro, thinking that another quarter of an hour must have gone, and
was surprised to find it was only a few minutes since he had last
looked at his watch. He ordered the samovar and lit his pipe. Then
there was a knock at the door. Jonah came in, bowing to the ground.
'I am glad to see you,' said the priest, 'there are several things in
my wardrobe that want mending.'
'God be praised for that, I haven't had work for a week past. And your
honour's lady housekeeper tells me that the clock is broken as well.'
'What? you mend clocks too?'
'Why yes, I've even got the tools to do it with. I'm also an
umbrella-mender and harness-maker, and I can glaze stewing-pans.'
'If that is so you might spend the winter here. When can you begin?'
'I'll sit down now and work through the night.'
'As you like. Ask them to give you some tea in the kitchen.'
'Begging your Reverence's pardon, may I ask that the sugar might be
'Don't you like your tea sweet?'
'On the contrary, I like it very sweet. But I save the sugar for my
The priest laughed at the Jew's astuteness. 'All right! have your tea
with sugar and some for your grandchildren as well. Walenty!' he called
out, 'bring me my fur coat.'
The Jew began bowing afresh. 'With an entreaty for your Reverence's
pardon, I come from Slimak's.'
'The man whose house was burnt down?'
'Not that he asked me to come, your Reverence, he would not presume to
do such a thing, but his wife is dead, they are both lying in the
stable, and I am sure he has a bad thought in his head, for no one does
so much as give him a cup of water.' The priest started.
'No one has visited him?'
'Begging your Reverence's pardon,' bowed the Jew, 'but they say in the
village, God's anger has fallen on him, so he must die without help.'
He looked into the priest's eyes as if Slimak's salvation depended on
him. His Reverence knocked his pipe on the floor till it broke.
'Then I'll go into the kitchen,' said the Jew, and took up his bundle.
The sledge-bells tinkled at the door, the valet stood ready with the
'I shall be wanted for the betrothal,' reflected the priest, 'that man
will last till to-morrow, and I can't bring the dead woman back to
life. It's eight o'clock, if I go to the man first there will be
nothing to go for afterwards. Give me my fur coat, Walenty.' He went
into his bedroom: 'Are the horses ready? Is it a bright night?' 'Quite
bright, your Reverence.'
'I cannot be the slave of all the people who are burnt down and all the
women who die,' he agitatedly resumed his thoughts, 'it will be time
enough to-morrow, and anyhow the man can't be worth much if no one will
help him.'...His eyes fell on the crucifix. 'Divine wounds! Here I am
hesitating between my amusement and comforting the stricken, and I am a
priest and a citizen!
Get a basket,' he said in a changed voice to the astonished servant,
'put the rest of the dinner into it. I had better take the sacrament
too,' he thought, after the surprised man had left the room, 'perhaps
he is dying. God is giving me another spell of grace instead of
condemning me eternally.'
He struck his breast and forgot that God does not count the number of
amusements preferred and bottles emptied, but the greatness of the
struggle in each human heart.
Within half an hour the priest's round ponies stood at Slimak's gate.
The priest walked towards the stable with a lantern in one hand and a
basket in the other, pushed open the door with his foot, and saw
Slimakowa's body. Further away, on the litter, sat the peasant, shading
his eyes from the light.
'Who is that?' he asked.
'It is I, your priest.'
Slimak sprang to his feet, with deep astonishment on his face. He
advanced with unsteady steps to the threshold, and gazed at the priest
with open mouth.
'What have you come for, your Reverence?'
'I have come to bring you the divine blessing. Put on your sheepskin,
it is cold here. Have something to eat.' He unpacked the basket.
Slimak stared, touched the priest's sleeve, and suddenly fell sobbing
at his feet.
'I am wretched, your Reverence...I am wretched...wretched!'
'Benedicat te omnipotens Deus!' Instead of making the sign of the
cross, the priest put his arm round the peasant and drew him on to the
'Calm yourself, brother, all will be well. God does not forsake His
He kissed him and wiped his tears. With almost a howl the peasant threw
himself at his feet.
'Now I don't mind if I die, or if I go to hell for my sins! I've had
this consolation that your Reverence has taken pity on me. If I were to
go to the Holy City on my knees, it would not be enough to repay you
for your kindness.'
He touched the ground at the priest's feet as though it were the altar.
The priest had to use much persuasion before he put on his sheepskin
and consented to touch food.
'Take a good pull,' he said, pouring out the mead.
'I dare not, your Reverence.'
'Well, then I will drink to you.' He touched the glass with his lips.
The peasant took the glass with trembling hands and drank kneeling,
swallowing with difficulty.
'Don't you like it?'
'Like it? vodka is nothing compared to this!' Slimak's voice sounded
natural again. 'Isn't it just full of spice!' he added, and revived
'Now tell me all about it,' began the priest: 'I remember you as a
'It would be a long story to tell your Reverence. One of my sons was
drowned, the other is in jail; my wife is dead, my horses were stolen,
my house burnt down. It all began with the squire's selling the
village, and with the railway and the Germans coming here. Then Josel
set everyone against me, because I had been selling fowls and other
things to the surveyors; even now he is doing his best to...'
'But why does everyone go to Josel for advice?' interrupted the priest.
'To whom is one to go, begging your Reverence's pardon? We peasants are
ignorant people. The Jews know about everything, and sometimes they
give good advice.'
The priest winced. The peasant continued excitedly:
'There were no wages coming in from the manor, and the Germans took the
two acres I had rented from the squire.'
'But let me see,' said the priest, 'wasn't it you to whom the squire
offered those two acres at a great deal less than they were worth?'
'Certainly it was me!'
'Why didn't you take the offer? I suppose you did not trust him?'
'How can one trust them when one does not know what they are talking
among themselves; they jabber like Jews, and when they talked to me
they were poking fun at me. Besides, there was some talk of free
distribution of land.'
'And you believed that?'
'Why should I not believe it? A man likes to believe what is to his
advantage. The Jews knew it wasn't true, but they won't tell.'
'Why didn't you apply for work at the railway?'
'I did, but the Germans kept me out.'
'Why couldn't you have come to me? the chief engineer was living at my
house all the time,' said the priest, getting angry.
'I beg your Reverence's pardon; I couldn't have known that, and I
shouldn't have dared to apply to your Reverence.'
'Hm! And the Germans annoyed you?'
'Oh dear, oh dear! haven't they been pestering me to sell them my land
all along, and when the fire came I gave way....'
'And you sold them the land?'
'God and my dead wife saved me from doing that. She got up from her
deathbed and laid a curse upon me if I should sell the land. I would
rather die than sell it, but all the same,' he hung his head, 'the
Germans will pay me out.'
'I don't think they can do you much harm.'
'If the Germans leave,' continued the peasant, 'I shall be up against
old Gryb, and he will do me as much harm as the Germans, or more.'
'I am a good shepherd!' the priest reflected bitterly. 'My sheep are
fighting each other like wolves, go to the Jews for advice, are
persecuted by the Germans, and I am going to entertainments!'
He got up. 'Stay here, my brother,' he said, 'I will go to the
Slimak kissed his feet and accompanied him to the sledge.
'Drive across to the village,' he directed his coachman.
'To the village?' The coachman's face, which was so chubby that it
looked as if it had been stung by bees, was comic in its astonishment:
'I thought we were going...'
'Drive where I tell you!'
Slimak leant on the fence, as in happier days.
'How could he have known about me?' he reflected. 'Is a priest like God
who knows everything? They would not have brought him word from the
village. It must have been good old Jonah. But now they will not dare
to look askance at me, because his Reverence himself has come to see
me. If he could only take the sin of my sending Maciek and the child to
their death from me, I shouldn't be afraid of anything.'
Presently the priest returned.
'Are you there, Slimak?' he called out. 'Gryb will come to you
to-morrow. Make it up with him and don't quarrel any more. I have sent
to town for a coffin and am arranging for the funeral.'
'Oh Redeemer!' sighed Slimak.
'Now, Pawel! drive on as fast as the horses will go,' cried the priest.
He pulled out his repeater watch: it was a quarter to ten.
'I shall be late,' he murmured, 'but not too late for everything; there
will be time for some fun yet.'
As soon as the sledge had melted into the darkness, and silence again
brooded over his home, an irresistible desire for sleep seized Slimak.
He dragged himself to the stable, but he hesitated. He did not wish to
lie down once more by the side of his dead wife, and went into the
cowshed. Uneasy dreams pursued him; he dreamt that his dead wife was
trying to force herself into the cowshed. He got up and looked into the
stable. Slimakowa was lying there peacefully; two faint beams of light
were reflected from the eyes which had not yet been closed.
A sledge stopped at the gate and Gryb came into the yard; his grey head
shook and his yellowish eyes moved uneasily. He was followed by his
man, who was carrying a large basket.
'I am to blame,' he cried, striking his chest, 'are you still angry
'God give you all that you desire,' said Slimak, bowing low, 'you are
coming to me in my time of trouble.'
This humility pleased the old peasant; he grasped Slimak's hand and
said in a more natural voice: 'I tell you, I am to blame, for his
Reverence told me to say that. Therefore I am the first to make it up
with you, although I am the elder. But I must say, neighbour, you did
annoy me very much. However, I will not reproach you.'
'Forgive me the wrong I have done,' said Slimak, bending towards his
shoulder, 'but to tell you the truth, I cannot remember ever having
wronged you personally.'
'I won't mince matters, Slimak. You dealt with those railway people
without consulting me.'
'Look at what I have earned by my trading,' said Slimak, pointing to
his burnt homestead.
'Well, God has punished you heavily, and that is why I say: I am to
blame. But when you came to church and your wife--God rest her
eternally--bought herself a silk kerchief, you ought to have treated me
to at least a pint of vodka, instead of speaking impertinently to me.'
'It's true, I boasted too early.'