Part 5 out of 7
'And then you made friends with the Germans and prayed with them.'
'I only took off my cap. Their God is the same as ours.'
Gryb shook his clenched fist in his face.
'What! their God is the same as ours? I tell you, he must be a
different God, or why should they jabber to him in German? But never
mind,' he changed his tone, 'all that's past and gone. You deserve well
of us, because you did not let the Germans have your land. Hamer has
already offered me his farm for midsummer.'
'Is that so?'
'Of course it is so. The scoundrels threatened to drive us all away,
and they have smashed themselves against a small gospodarz of ten
acres. You deserve God's blessing and our friendship for that. God rest
your dead wife eternally! Many a time has she set you against me! I'll
bear her no grudge on that account, however. And here, you see, all of
us in the village are sending you some victuals.'
Their conversation was interrupted by the arrival of Grochowski.
'I wouldn't believe Jonah, when he came to tell me all this,' he said,
'and you here, Gryb, too? Where is the defunct?'
They approached to the stable and knelt down in the snow. Only the
murmuring of their prayers and Slimak's sobs were audible for a while.
Then the men got up and praised the dead woman's virtues.
'I am bringing you a bird,' then said Grochowski, turning to Gryb; 'he
is slightly wounded.'
'What do you mean?'
'It's your Jasiek. He attempted to steal my horses last night, and I
treated him to a little lead.'
'Where is he?'
'In the sledge outside.'
Gryb ran off at a heavy trot. Blows and cries were heard, then the old
man reappeared, dragging his son by the hair. The strong young fellow
was crying like a child. He looked dishevelled and his clothes were
torn; a bloodstained cloth was tied round his hand.
'Did you steal the Soltys' horses?' shouted his father.
'How should I not have stolen them? I did steal them!'
'Not quite,' said Grochowski, 'but he did steal Slimak's.'
'What?' cried Gryb, and began to lay on to his son again.
'I did, father. Leave off!' wailed Jasiek.
'My God, how did this come about?' asked the old man.
'That's simple enough,' sneered Grochowski, 'he found others as bad as
himself, and they robbed the whole neighbourhood, till I winged him.'
'What do you propose to do now?' asked old Gryb between his blows.
'I'll mend my ways.'...'I'll marry Orzchewski's daughter,' wailed
'Perhaps this is not quite the moment for that,' said Grochowski,
'first you will go to prison.'
'You don't mean to charge him?' asked his father.
'I should prefer not to charge him, but the whole neighbourhood is
indignant about the robberies. However, as he did not do me personally
any harm, I am not bound to charge him.'
'What will you take?'
'Not a kopek less than a hundred and fifty roubles.'
'In that case, let him go to prison.'
'A hundred and fifty to me, and eighty to Slimak for the horses.'
Gryb took to his fists again.
'Who put you up to this?'
'Leave off!' cried Jasiek; 'it was Josel.'
'And why did you do as he told you?'
'Because I owe him a hundred roubles.'
'Oh Lord!' groaned Gryb, tearing his hair.
'Well, that's nothing to tear your hair about,' said Grochowski. 'Come;
three hundred and thirty roubles between Slimak, Josel, and me; what is
that to you?'
'I won't pay it.'
'All right! In that case he will go to prison. Come along.' He took the
youth by the arm.
'Dad, have pity, I am your only son!'
The old man looked helplessly at the peasants in turn.
'Are you going to ruin my life for a paltry sum?'
'Wait...wait,' cried Gryb, seeing that the Soltys was in earnest. He
took Slimak aside.
'Neighbour, if there is to be peace between us,' he said, 'I'll tell
you what you will have to do.'
'You'll have to marry my sister. You are a widower, she is a widow. You
have ten acres, she has fifteen. I shall take her land, because it is
close to mine, and give you fifteen acres of Hamer's land. You will
have a gospodarstwo of twenty-five acres all in one piece.'
Slimak reflected for a while.
'I think,' he said at last,' Gawdrina's land is better than Hamer's.'
'All right! You shall have a bit more.'
Slimak scratched his head. 'Well, I don't know,' he said.
'It's agreed, then,' said Gryb, 'and now I'll tell you what you will
have to do in return. You will pay a hundred and fifty roubles to
Grochowski and a hundred to Josel.'
'I haven't buried my wife yet.'
The old man's temper was rising.
'Rubbish! don't be a fool! How can a gospodarz get along without a
wife? Yours is dead and gone, and if she could speak, she would say:
"Marry, Josef, and don't turn up your nose at a benefactor like Gryb."'
'What are you quarrelling about?' cried Grochowski.
'Look here, I am offering him my sister and fifteen acres of land, four
cows and a pair of horses, to say nothing of the household property,
and he can't make up his mind,' said Gryb, with awry face.
'Why, that's certainly worth while,' said Grochowski, 'and not a bad
'Aye, a good, hefty woman,' cried Gryb.
'You'll be quite a gentleman, Slimak,' added Grochowski.
Slimak sighed. 'I'm sorry,' he said, 'that Jagna did not live to see
The agreement was carried out, and before Holy Week both Slimak and
Gryb's son were married. By the autumn Slimak's new gospodarstwo was
finished, and an addition to his family expected. His second wife not
unfrequently reminded him that he had been a beggar and owed all his
good fortune to her. At such times he would slip out of the house, lie
under the lonely pine and meditate, recalling the strange struggle,
when the Germans had lost their land and he his nearest and dearest.
When everybody else had forgotten Slimakowa, Stasiek, Maciek, and the
child, he often remembered them, and also the dog Burek and the cow
doomed to the butcher's knife for want of fodder.
Silly Zoska died in prison, old Sobieska at the inn. The others with
whom my story is concerned, not excepting old Jonah, are alive and
A PINCH OF SALT
It was in the fourth year of my exile to the metropolis of the Siberian
frosts, a few days before Christmas, when one of our comrades and
fellow-sufferers, a former student at the university of Kiev, who
hailed from Little-Russia, called in to give us some interesting news.
One of his intimate friends--also an ex-student and fellow-
sufferer--was to pass through our town on his way back from a
far-distant Yakut aul, where he had lived for three years;
he was due to arrive on Christmas Eve.
[Footnote 1: _Aul: a hamlet_.]
We had repeatedly met people who knew the life in the nearer Yakut
settlements; now and then we had seen temporary or permanent
inhabitants of the so-called Yakut 'towns' of Vjerchojansk, Vihijsk,
and Kalymsk. But the nearer auls and towns were populous centres of
human life in comparison to those far-off deserted and desolate places;
they gave one no conception of what the latter might be like. Certainly
the fact that the worst criminals, when they were sent to those
regions, preferred to return to hard labour rather than live in liberty
there, gave us an illustration of the charms of that life, yet it told
us nothing definite.
Bad--we were told--very bad it was out there, but in what way bad it
was impossible to judge, even from the knowledge we had of life in less
remote regions. Who would venture to draw conclusions from the little
we knew as to the thousand small details which made up that grey,
monotonous existence? Who could clearly bring them before the
imagination? Only experience could reveal them in their appalling
nakedness. Of one thing we were certain, that was that in a measure as
the populousness decreases, and you move away in a centrifugal
direction from where we were, life becomes harder and more and more
distressing for human beings. In the south, on the wild high plateaus
of the Aldon; in the east, on the mountain slopes of the
Stanovoi-Chebret, where a single Tungus family constitutes the sole
population along a river of 300 versts; in the west on the desolate
heights of the Viluj, near the great Zeresej Lake; in the north at the
mysterious outlets of the Quabrera, the desert places of the Olensk,
Indigirika, and Kolyma, life becomes like a Danteesque hell, consisting
in nothing but ice, snow and gales, and lighted up by the lurid
blood-red rays of the northern light.
But no! those deserts, equal in extent to the half of Europe, are only
the purgatory, not yet the real Siberian hell. You still find woods
there, poor, thin, dwarfed woods, it is true, but where there is wood
there is fire and vitality. The true hell of human torture begins
beyond the line of the woods; then there is nothing but ice and snow;
ice that does not even melt in the plains in summer--and in the midst
of that icy desert, miserable human beings thrown upon this shore by an
I shall never forget the impression which any chance bit of information
on the characteristic features, the horrible details of that life, used
to make upon me. Even clearly defined facts and exact technical terms
bear quite a different aspect in the light of such unusual local
I have a vivid remembrance of a story told me by a former official; he
described to me how when he was stationed in V. as Ispravnik, 'a
certain gentleman' was sent out to him with orders to take him to the
settlement in Zaszyversk.
[Footnote 1: Pronounce: Zashiversk.]
'You see, little brother,' said the ex-Ispravnik, 'the town of
Zaszyversk does exist. Even on a small map of Siberia you can easily
find it to the right of a large blank space; if you remember your
geography lessons you will even know that it is designated as "town out
of governmental bounds". An appointment to such a place means for an
official that he is expected to send in his resignation; as for the
towns, it means that they have been degraded by having ceased to be the
seat of certain local government. In this case there was a yet deeper
significance in the description, for the town of Zaszyversk does, as I
said, exist, but only in the imagination of cartographers and in
geography manuals, not in reality. So much so is it non-existent that
not a single house, not a yurta, not a hovel marks the place which
is pointed out to you on the map. When I read the order I could not
believe my eyes, and though I was sober I reeled. I called another
official and showed him the curious document.
[Footnote 1: Yurta: hut of the native Yakut.]
'He was an old, experienced hand at the office, but when he saw this
order, the paper dropped from his hands. "Where to?" I asked. "To
Zaszyversk!" We looked at each other. Nice things that young man must
have been up to! There he stood, looked and listened and understood
'He was a handsome fellow but gloomy and stuck up. I asked him one
thing after another, was he in need of anything? and so on, but he
answered nothing but "Yes" or "No". Well, my little brother, I thought
to myself, you will soon sing a different tune! I ordered three troikas
to be brought round; he was put into the first with the Cossack who
escorted him, I was in the second with an old Cossack, who remembered
where this town of Zaszyversk had once stood, and the third contained
provisions; then we started. First we drove straight on for twenty-four
hours; during this time we still stopped at stations where we changed
horses, and we covered 200 versts. The second and third days we covered
150 versts, but we did not meet a living soul, and we spent the nights
in the large barnlike buildings without windows or chimneys and with
only a fireplace, which are found on the road; they are called
'Our prisoner was obviously beginning to feel rather bad, so he
addressed me from time to time; at last he tried to get information out
of me concerning the life in Zaszyversk. "How many inhabitants were
there? what was the town like? was there any chance of his finding
something to do there, perhaps private lessons?" But now it was my turn
to answer him: "Yes" or "No". On the fourth day. towards morning, we
entered upon a glacier. We had arrived in the region where the ice does
not disappear even in summer. When we had advanced ten versts on the
ice, the old Cossack showed me the place where sixty years ago a few
yurtas had stood which were called in geographical terms "Zaszyversk,
town out of governmental bounds".
"Stop," I cried, "let the young gentleman get out; here we are! This is
the town of Zaszyversk...."
'The man did not understand at once, he opened his eyes wide and
thought it was a joke, or that I had lost my reason. I had to explain
the situation to him.... At last he understood.'
The ex-Ispravnik laughed dryly. 'Will you believe me or not?' he
continued. 'Look here, I swear by the cross'--he crossed himself
spaciously, bowing to the images of the saints--that fellow's eyes
became glassy... his jaws chattered as in a fever. It was a business!
'And I, a tough old official, I put my hands to my forehead. You should
have seen how the gentleman's pride disappeared in a moment; he became
soft as wax and so humble... pliable as silk he was!
'"I adjure you by the wounds of Christ," he cried, stretching out his
hands to me, "let the love of God come into your heart! I have not been
condemned to death, there is nothing very serious against me, I have
been too overbearing, that is all."
'"Oh," I said, "well, you see, pride is a great sin."
'And whether you will believe me or won't'--he crossed himself again--'
the man wept like a child when I told him I would take him to the
nearest Yakut yurta, at a distance of thirty versts from the town of
Zaszyversk, and I swear to you for the third time it was with joy that
he wept... although he was not much better off in that yurta....'
It is easy to imagine how eagerly we received the news of the arrival
of a man who had actually been living somewhere at the end of the world
under conditions which had completely isolated him for three whole
years; yet it was said that he was returning into this world sound in
body and mind. We inhabitants of our own special town were not living
in the most enviable of circumstances either, but we all knew that they
were infinitely happier than they might have been.
A passionate desire seized us to look upon that life out there in its
unveiled nakedness, its horrible cruelty. This curiosity meant more
than narrow selfishness; it had a special reason.
The fact that a human being had been able to survive in that
far-distant world, bore witness to the strength and resistance of the
human spirit; the iron will and energy of the one doubled and steeled
the strength of all the others.
What we had heard so far of those who were battling with their fate at
the end of the world had not been too comforting. Therefore the
question whether and how one could live and suffer there, was a vital
one for us.
And now the news came unexpectedly that one of our own class, a man
closely allied to us by his intellectual development and a number of
ways and customs, had actually lived for three years in a yurta not
much better situated than the one behind the imaginary town of
Zaszyversk. This unknown youth, student of a university not our own,
became dear to us. We all--Russians, Poles, and Jews--bound together by
our common fate, made up our minds to celebrate his arrival, and as it
was timed for Christmas Eve, we were going to prepare a solemn feast in
As I was the one who had the greatest experience in culinary affairs, I
was charged with the arrangement of the dinner, supported by a young
student, and by the intense interest of the whole colony. I am sure
that neither I nor my dear scullion have ever in our lives before or
after worked as hard for two days in the kitchen as we did then.
The student was not only a great collector of everything useful for our
daily life, he was also deeply versed in the knowledge of the Yakut in
general. While we were cooking and roasting we told one another the
most interesting things, and thus stimulated each other to such a
degree that the dinner, originally planned on simple lines, began to
assume Lucullian dimensions.
We knew only too well how miserable the life in the nearest Yakut
yurtas was, that there was a want of the most necessary European food,
such as would be found in the poorest peasant's home; above all, the
want of bread--simple daily bread--was very pronounced among the poorer
populations. It was not surprising that we two, possessed by gloomy
pictures which we recalled to our memory, fell into a sort of
cooking-fever. Like a mother who remembers the favourite dishes of the
child she has not seen for a long time, and whom she expects home on a
certain day, we kept on racking our brains for, agreeable surprises for
our guest. One or the other would constantly ask:
'What do you think, comrade, wouldn't he like this or that?'
'Well, of course, he would thoroughly enjoy that. Just think, counting
the journeys, it must be a good five years since he has eaten food fit
for human beings.'
'Shall we add that?'
And one of us ran to the market-place to fetch the necessary
ingredients from the shops, another secured kitchen utensils, and soon
another course enriched the menu. At last the supply of kitchen
utensils gave out, and want of time as well as physical exhaustion put
a stop to further exertions. Our enthusiasm had communicated itself to
all the participants of the feast, for they were all of a responsive
disposition, and declared themselves charmed with our inventiveness and
energy. I and my scullion were proud of our work. A huge fish, weighing
twenty pounds, which after much trouble we had succeeded in boiling
whole, was considered the crowning success of our labour and art. We
rightly anticipated that this magnificent fish, prepared with an
appallingly highly seasoned and salted sauce, would move the hardest
hearts. Also, we did not forget a small Christmas tree, and decorated
it as best we could in honour of our guest.
At last the longed-for day came. The student started at dawn for the
nearest posting station to await the newcomer and bring him to us.
Before two o'clock, when it began to be dark, we were all assembled,
and soon after two the melancholy sound of the sleighbells announced
the arrival of the students. We hurriedly pulled on our furs and went
out. The sleigh and the travellers were entirely covered with snow,
long icicles hung from the horses' nostrils when they whipped into the
courtyard, they were covered with a fine crust of ice. Another moment
and they stood still in front of the door. Every man bared his
head...there were some who had grown grey in misery and sorrow.
I will not describe our first greeting--I could not do so even if I
would. We did not know each other, and yet how near we felt! I doubt
whether it will ever fall to my share again to be one of a number of
human beings so different in birth and station in life, yet so nearly
related, so closely tied to each other as we were on the day when we
greeted our guest.
He was small and thin--very thin. His complexion showed yellow and
black, much more than ours did; he seemed marked for life by an earthen
colour; his deeply sunk eyes were the only feature which was burning
with vitality, they had a phosphorescent glow.
It had grown quite dark by the time he had changed his clothes and
warmed himself, and we were sitting down to our dinner. Noise and
vivacity predominated in our small abode; a cheerful mood rose like an
overflowing wave, washing away all signs of sorrow and bitterness.
'Let us be cheerful!'
Louder and louder this cry arose, now here, now there, and when our
guest took it up even the gloomiest faces brightened. We broke the
sacred wafer, then we emptied the first glasses. My industrious
scullion had been deeply moved by a folk-song from the Ukraine, one of
those songs rich in poetical feeling and simple metaphor which go
straight to the heart; he therefore got up to make the welcoming
speech, and, encouraged by the tears of joy which rose in the eyes of
our guest, he quite took possession of him. He told him that he and I
had worked uninterruptedly for two days and nights in the sweat of our
brows, so as to give him a noble repast after his many days of
privation and hunger; he forecast the whole menu, beginning with his
favourite Kutja, he drew close to him and put his arm round his neck,
laughing gaily, and seemingly inspiring him so that he wept tears of
Our animated mood rose higher and higher. A storm of applause greeted
the first course. The student filled the guest's plate to the brim. At
last the harmonious rattle of the spoons replaced the laughing and
talking. 'Excellent,' was the universal verdict.
My scullion was in raptures and loudly assented; finally he too became
silent and applied himself like us to his plate.
But what in the name of God did this mean? We were all eating, only our
guest fumbled about with his spoon and stirred his soup without eating,
laughing the while with a suppressed, hardly audible laugh.
'My God, what is it? why don't you eat, comrade?' several voices called
in unison. 'The scullion has been exciting him too much! Off with him!
Our guest must have serious people next to him.' The student obediently
changed places, and we turned to our food again. But still our guest
did not eat.
What was the matter? We stopped eating and all eyes were turned
questioningly upon him. Our silent anxiety was sufficiently eloquent.
He perceived, felt it and said:
'I... forgive me... I... my happiness... I am so sorry... I do not want
to trouble you, and I fear I shall spoil your pleasure. I beg you... I
entreat you, dear brothers, take no notice of me...it is nothing, it
will pass,' and he broke into a strange sobbing laugh.
'Jesus, Mary!' we all cried, for we had not noticed before how
unnatural his laugh was; there was no further thought of eating; and
he, when he saw the general anxiety, mastered himself with an effort
and said rapidly amidst the general silence:
'I thought you knew what the life was like that I have lived for three
years, but I see you don't know it; when I realized this I tried...
I... well, I tried while you were eating and drinking to swallow a
small piece of bread... just a tiny piece of bread... but I cannot do
it... I cannot! You see, for three years... three whole years I have
tasted no salt... I ate all my food without salt, and this bread is
rather salt--very salt in fact, it is burning and scorching me, and
probably all the other things are also very salt.' 'Certainly, some
were even salted too much in our haste and eagerness,' I answered
simultaneously with the student.
'Well then, eat, beloved brothers, eat, but I cannot eat anything; I
shall watch you with great pleasure--eat, I beg you fervently!' and
with hysterical laughter and tears he sank back into his seat.
Now we understood this laugh which was like a spasm....
Not one of us was able to swallow the food which he had in his mouth.
The misery of the existence of which we had longed to know something
had lifted the veil off a small portion of its mysteries.
We all dropped our spoons and hung our heads.
How vain, how small appeared to us now the trouble we had taken about
the food, how clumsy our childish enjoyment!
And while we looked at the ravaged face of our brother, convulsed with
spasmodic laughter and tears, a feeling of horror seized upon us....
We felt as if the spectre of death had risen from a lonely yurta
somewhere behind the lost town of Zaszyversk and was staring at us with
cold glassy eyes....
A dead silence brooded over the frightened assembly.
KOWALSKI THE CARPENTER
A SIBERIAN SKETCH
I made his acquaintance accidentally; the chance which led to it was
caused by the peculiar conditions of the Yakut spring. My readers will
probably only have a very imperfect knowledge of the Yakut spring.
From the middle of April onwards the sun begins to be pretty powerful
in Yakutsk; in May it hardly leaves the horizon for a few hours and is
roasting hot; but as long as the great Lena has not thrown off the
shackles of winter, and as long as the huge masses of unmelted snow are
lying in the taiga, you can see no trace of spring. The snow is not
warmed by the earth, which has been frozen hard to the depth of several
feet, and this thick crust of ice opposes determined resistance to the
lifegiving rays, and only after long, patient labour does the sun
succeed in awakening to new life the secret depths of the taiga and the
queen of Yakut waters, 'Granny Lena', as the Yakut calls the great
[Footnote 1: Primaeval forest.]
In the last days of the month of May, when this battle of vitalizing
warmth against the last remnants of the cruel winter is nearing its
end, the newly arrived European witnesses a scene which is without
parallel anywhere in the west. Every sound resembling a report, however
distant and indistinct, has a wonderful effect upon the people out in
the open; children and the aged, men and women are suddenly rooted to
the spot, turn to the east towards the river, crane their necks and
seem to be listening for something.
If the peculiar sounds cease or turn out to be caused accidentally,
everybody quietly goes home. But if the reports continue, and swell to
such dimensions that the air seems filled with a noise like the firing
of great guns or the rolling of thunder, accompanied by subterranean
rushing like the coming of a great gale, then these silent people
become unusually animated. Joyful shouts of 'The ice is cracking! the
river is breaking! do you hear?' are heard from all sides; eagerly and
noisily the people run in all directions to carry the news into the
farthest cottages. Everybody knocks at the doors he passes, be they his
friends' or a stranger's; and calls out the magic word 'The Lena is
breaking!' These words spread like wildfire in many tongues through
far-off houses, yurtas and Yakut settlements, and whoever is able to
move puts on his furs and runs to the banks of the Lena.
A dense crowd is thronging the banks, watching in fascination one of
the most beautiful natural phenomena in Siberia.
Gigantic blocks of ice, driven down by the powerful waves of the broad
river, are packed to the height of houses--of mountains; they break,
they crash; covered with myriads of small needles of ice, they seem to
be floating in the sun, displaying a marvellous wealth of colour.
But one must have lived here for at least one winter to understand what
it is that drives this crowd of human beings to the river banks. It is
not the magnificent display of nature that attracts them.
In the long struggle against winter these people have exhausted all
their strength; for many months' they have been awaiting the vivifying
warmth with longing and impatience, now they hasten hither to witness
the triumph of the sun over the cruel enemy.
An intense, almost childlike joy is depicted on the yellow faces of the
Yakuts, their broad lips smile good-naturedly and appear broader still,
their little black eyes glow like coals. The whole crowd is swaying as
if intoxicated. 'God be praised! God be praised!' they call to each
other, turn towards the huge icebergs which are now being destroyed by
the friendly element, and shout and rejoice over the defeat of the
merciless enemy, driven, crushed and annihilated by the inexorable
When the ice-drifts on the Lena have come to an end, the earth quickly
thaws, although only to a depth of two feet. But nature makes the most
of the three months of warmth. Within a comparatively short time
everything develops and unfolds.
The great plain of Yakutsk offers a charming spectacle; it is fertile,
and here and there cultivation already begins to show. Birchwoods,
small lakes, brushwood and verdant fields alternate and make the whole
country look like a large park, framed by the silver ribbon of the
Lena. The surrounding gloom of the taiga emphasizes the natural beauty
of the valley. This smiling plain in the midst of the wide expanse
reminds one of an oasis in the desert.
The Yakut is by far the most capable of the Siberian tribes; he values
the gifts of the life-giving sun and enjoys them to the full. When he
escapes from his narrow, stinking winter-yurta he fills his hitherto
inhospitable country with life and movement; his energy is doubled, his
vitality pulsates with greater strength and intensity. When the
'Ysech', the feast of spring, is over, the animated mood of the
population does not abate in the least. The 'strengthening kumis', the
ambrosia of the Yakut gods, does not run dry in the wooden vessels, for
luxuriant grass covers the ground, and cows and mares give abundant
The sight of the lovely plain and the joyful human beings delighting in
the summer had revived me also. This was my first summer in Yakutsk,
and I responded to it with my whole being. Daily I went for walks to
look at the beauty of the surrounding world, daily I took my sun bath.
My walks usually led me to one of the Yakut yurtas; they are at long
distances from each other, lonely and scattered over the whole country.
You find them in whatever direction you may choose.
Cold milk and kumis can be had in all these yurtas. It is true both
have the nasty smell which the stranger in this part of the world calls
'Yakut odour'; but during the long winter when milk other than from
Yakut yurtas was hard to procure, I had got used to this specific
smell, so that now it only produced a mild nausea.
One of the many yurtas had taken my fancy, for it was charmingly
situated close to the woods in a corner of the raised banks of a long
stretch of lake. It belonged to an aged Yakut, well deserving of the
honourable designation 'ohonior', given to all the Yakut elders.
The old man was living there with his equally aged wife and a young
fellow, a distant relation of his. Two cows and a calf, a few mares and
a foal constituted all their wealth.
All the Yakuts are very inquisitive and loquacious. But my friend, the
honourable 'ohonior ', possessed these qualities in an unusually high
degree, and as he was able to speak broken Russian, I often took
occasion to call in for a little talk.
First of all he wished to know who I was, where I came from and what
was my business here. Towards the Russians, whether strangers or
natives of Siberia, the Yakuts are always on their guard and
excessively obsequious. Every Russian, however poorly dressed, is
always the 'tojan', the master. Their behaviour towards the Poles, on
the other hand, is very friendly. No Yakut ever took the information
that I was not a Russian but a 'Bilak'--Polak--with indifference.
'Bilak? Bilak? Excellent brother!' exclaimed even the most reticent
among them. The 'ohonior' and I therefore soon became friends, and when
he learned that in addition I was versed in the art of writing and
might be employed as secretary to the community and draw up petitions
to the 'great master'--the 'gubernator'--my value was immensely
increased, and this respect saved me from too great an intimacy. Owing
to this consideration I was always offered the best milk and kumis, and
when the old woman handed me a jug she carefully wiped it with her
fingers first, or removed every trace of dirt with her tongue.
One day when I called in passing to drink my kumis, I found the
'ohonior' unusually excited; he was not only talkative, but also in
very great spirits. His tongue was a little heavy, although he showed
no sign of old age. It turned out that my honourable host had just
returned from the town, where he had indulged in vodka to warm his
'The Bilaks are good, are all good,' he stammered, while he crammed his
little pipe with tobacco, 'every Bilak is a clerk, or at least a
doctor, or even a smith, as good as a Yakut one. You are a good man
too, and you must be a good clerk; we all love the Bilaks, a Sacha
never forgets that the Bilak is his brother. But will you believe it,
brother, it is not long since this is so? I myself was afraid of the
Bilaks as of evil spirits until about fifteen years ago, and yet I am
so old that the calves have grazed off the meadows seventy times before
my eyes. When I saw a Bilak, I would run like a hare wherever my feet
would carry me--into the wood or into the bushes, never mind where, so
long as I could escape from him. And not only I but everybody dreaded
the Bilaks, for, you see, people told each other dreadful things about
them, that they had horns and slew everybody, and so on.'
[Footnote 1: The name by which the Yakuts call themselves.]
I ascertained that these fairy-tales had had their origin in the town,
and reproached the old man for his credulity, but he bridled up at
'Goodness gracious! do you think we believed all that on hearsay? I
don't know about other people, but I and all my neighbours believed it
because our forefathers knew for certain that every Bilak was terrible
The old man refreshed himself from the jug and continued:
'Do you see, it was like this. My father was not yet born, my
grandfather was a little fellow for whom they were still collecting the
"Kalym" when there came to this neighbourhood a Bilak with eyes of
ice, a long beard and long moustaches; he settled here, not in the
valley but up on yonder mountainside in the taiga. That was not taiga,
as you see it now, but thick and wild, untouched by any axe. There the
Bilak found an empty yurta and settled in it.'
[Footnote 1: The price for the future wife which is paid in cattle and
horses; it is collected early in the boy's life.]
[Footnote 2: The black-eyed Yakuts speak thus of the blue-eyed races.]
'But he had no sooner gone to live there than the taiga became
impassable at a distance of ten versts round the cottage. The Bilak ran
about with his gun in his hand, and when he caught sight of anyone he
covered him with his gun, and unless the man ran away he would pop at
him--but not for fun, he didn't mind whom he shot, even if it were a
Cossack. What he lived on? The gods of the taiga know! Nobody else did.
Every living thing shunned him like the plague. Those who caught sight
of him in the forest when he ran about like a devil said that at first
he wore clothes such as the Russian gentlemen wear who know how to
write, but later on he was dressed in skins which he must have tanned
himself. People said he got to look more and more terrible and wild.
His beard grew down to his waist, his face got paler and paler and his
eyes burnt like flames. Some years passed. Then one winter, at the time
of the worst frosts, when a murderous "chijus" broke, he was not
seen for several days. As a rule he had been observed from a distance,
so the people gave notice in the town that someone should come and
ascertain what had happened to him.
[Footnote 1: A column of frozen air, moving southwards. After a chijus,
corpses of frozen people are generally found.]
'They came and closed in upon the cottage carefully. There was the
Bilak on the bed in his furs, all covered with snow, and in his hand he
held a cross. The Bilak was dead; perhaps hunger had killed him,
perhaps the frost, or maybe the devil had taken him. Now tell me, was
there no reason for us to be afraid of the Bilaks? Here was only a
single one who drove all the neighbourhood to flight, and now all of a
sudden a great many of you arrived? He! he! he! You know how to write,
brother, but you are yet very young! So you thought people had no good
reasons for their fears? Well, you see, you were mistaken. A Sacha is
cleverer than he looks!'
This legend of a Pole who could not bear to look upon human beings--a
legend I repeatedly heard again later--made a deep impression upon me.
These woods, these fields where I was walking now had perhaps been
haunted by the unfortunate man, driven mad and wild with excess of
Had his troubles been beyond endurance or had he been unable to bear
the sight of human wickedness and human misery? Or was it the
separation from his home, from those dear to him, that had broken him?
Dominated altogether by these thoughts, I returned to the town without
paying heed to anything around me. I was walking fast, almost at a run,
when a long-drawn call coming from somewhere close by struck upon my
At first I neither understood the call nor whence it came, but on
frequent repetition it dawned upon me that it proceeded from the bushes
at a little distance in front of me, and that it was meant to be the
Yakut call 'Come here, come here, brother!' I even divined, as I came
nearer, what manner of man it was that was calling. No Yakut, no
Russian, be he a native or a settler, could have mispronounced this
Yakut word so badly; it should have been 'Kelere!'
Only my countrymen, the Masurs, could do such violence to the
beautiful, sonorous Yakut language. During my long sojourn in Yakutsk I
have never met a Masurian peasant who pronounced this word otherwise
Indeed, there he was, behind the bushes beyond a bridge spanning the
marsh or dried-up arm of the Lena--a man in the ordinary clothes of
deported criminals; he agitated his arms violently, and continually
repeated his call 'Kallarra'!
This was addressed to a Yakut who became visible on the outskirts of
the brushwood, but it was in vain, for the wary Yakut had no intention
of drawing nearer. The caller must have realized this, for when he
arrived at the bridge he called once more 'Kalare! you dog!' Then he
ceased and only swore to himself: 'May you burst, may you swell, you
son of a dog!'
When he noticed me, he stood still. I came up to him and greeted him in
Polish, 'Praised be Jesus Christ!'
The peasant could not get over his amazement.
'Oh Jesus! where do you come from, sir?' he cried.
We soon made friends. He lived somewhere in an uluse, and had gone
into the town to hire himself out for work in the gold mines; he had
secured work and was to start at once, driving a herd of cattle to his
new abode. He was grazing them when I met him, and as some of them had
gone astray, and he was unable to drive them all across the bridge
singlehanded, he was waiting for someone to come along and help him. I
gladly lent him a hand, and when the herd had been got across the
bridge and was quietly going along, we began to talk. I asked him with
whom he was lodging.
[Footnote 1: A settlement consisting of several yurtas.]
'With Kowalski,' he said.
I knew all the Poles in Yakutsk, but I had never heard of Kowalski.
'Well, I mean Kowalski the carpenter.'
Still I did not know whom he meant.
'Who are his friends? whom does he go to see?' I inquired.
'He is peculiar. They all know him, but he does not go to see them.'
'How do you mean: he does not go to see them?'
'How should he go to see them? He has got clump feet, he has lost his
toes with frostbite. When the wounds are closed he can just manage, but
when they are open he cannot even move about in his room.'
'How does he manage to live?'
'He does a little carpentering; he has a beautiful workshop and all
sorts of tools, but I tell you when he can't stand on his feet he can't
do carpentering. Then he is glad when people come and give him orders
for brushes--he can make beautiful brushes as well--for sweeping rooms
or for brushing clothes. But the rooms here are not swept much, and
people rarely brush their clothes either. Now he is ill again.'
'Where does he come from? How long has he been here?'
'He has been here a long time, there were only a few like us when he
came. But where he comes from, who he is--I see you don't know
Kowalski, or else you wouldn't ask. For you see, when I ask him, or one
of the gentlemen, or even the priest, who comes from Irkutsk, he only
answers: "Brother, God knows very well who I am and where I come from,
but it serves no purpose and is quite unnecessary that you should know
it too!" There you are! That's like him. So nobody asks him.'
I inquired very particularly all the same where Kowalski lived. In my
imagination the 'Bilak' of the legend who fled from men and this lonely
carpenter were blended into one personality, I could not say why. I
felt that there must be a mysterious connexion as between all things
repeating themselves in the circle of time. Perhaps the great sorrow
which--I imagined--had died at the death of the Bilak was still living
on quite close to me, in a different shape, but just as great, no less
unbearable and fateful to him in whom it now dwelt.
Since that day I had often guided my steps in the direction of
Kowalski's yurta. No fresh shavings were added to the old ones lying
about near the door and the little windows. They grew drier and blacker
every day; perhaps the man who had thrown them there.... I had not the
courage to enter. I kept on waiting for another day when perhaps fresh
shavings would be added, but none appeared and no noises of work were
At last I made up my mind not to put it off any longer. I left my home
with this decision and had already reached a corner of his yurta, when
I heard a trembling, weak but pleasant voice singing.
I sat down on the bench in front of the yurta, and I could distinctly
hear every word of a sentimental, gently melancholy little ditty which
had once been very popular in Poland:
'When the fields are fresh and green.
And the spring revives the world.'
But after the third verse the singing suddenly ceased and a voice
called out gloomily:
'Doggy, go and bark at the Almighty!'
At first I did not know what this peculiar command meant, but after a
short pause I heard the thin bark of a dog, and as the gate of the
enclosure was open I drew nearer and saw in the wide open door of the
yurta a small black dog, tiny and light, repeatedly raising itself on
its hindlegs and barking up at the blue sky while it jumped and turned
Of course I went away and put off my visit to a more suitable occasion.
At last I saw him. He was of middle stature, quite greyheaded, and he
looked very neglected. The ashen complexion common to all exiles
distinguished him in a high degree, so that it gave me pain to look
into his face with the black shadows.
If he had not been talking, and moving about, it would have been hard
to guess that one was looking at a living being. And yet, glances like
lightning would sometimes dart from the large eyes surrounded by broad,
dark circles, and they showed that death had not yet numbed the inner
life of this moving corpse, but that he was still capable of emotion.
As long as he was sitting I could bear the sight of his suffering face,
but when he got up I had to turn away my eyes, for then his clump-feet
seemed to cause him the greatest agony.
He spoke Polish correctly and with a pure accent. He carefully avoided
any direct or indirect allusion to his past, and shrank equally from
information about his native country. He talked exclusively about the
present, principally about his dog, with whom he held long
conversations. Only once in the course of the few weeks during which I
visited him did he get animated: that was when I mentioned Plotsk; his
eyes shone as with a hidden fire while he asked: 'Do you know that
I answered that I had lived there for a year, and he said, half to
'I suppose it is all quite changed, so many years have passed. You
probably were not born at the time when I came to Siberia. In what part
of the province did you stay?'
'Not far from Raciaz.'
He opened his mouth, but he felt he had said too much, or that I was
listening with curiosity; enough--he only uttered a long-drawn 'Oh...'
and was silent again.
This was the only allusion Kowalski ever made to his past. I felt
inclined to draw him out, but he knew how to parry these attempts in a
delicate way by calling his dog and saying to him while he caressed
him: 'Go, bark at the Almighty!' And the obedient creature would
continue for a long time to bark at the sky.
As soon as Kowalski gave this order, it was a sure sign that he would
not open his mouth except for conversation about his dog, of which he
Although this dog was quite ordinary, he was in several ways
distinguished from his Yakut brothers. For one thing he had no name and
was simply addressed as 'Doggy', though he was his master's pet and was
attached to the house and enclosure.
'Why didn't you give your dog a name?' I asked casually.
'What's the good of a name? If people had not invented so many names
and called each other simply "Man", they would perhaps remember better
that we are all men together.'
So the dog remained nameless. He was of a graceful and delicate build
and fast, quite unlike the heavier, thickset, thick-coated native dogs;
his hair was short, soft, and silky. His appearance had condemned him
to an isolated and lonely life. Attempts at participation in the canine
social life had failed deplorably; he had returned from these
expeditions lame and bleeding all over, and after some vain repetitions
he had given up the hope of satisfying his social instincts and did not
leave the enclosure any more. He was surprisingly sedate for his
delicate organism and thin, mobile little frame, but this was not the
calm sedateness of the strong, shaggy Yakut dogs, against whom he
obviously harboured a certain hatred and bitterness, because these big,
powerful creatures would not recognize the rights of the weak. Except
for his master, he showed no affection for anyone and accepted no
favours--perhaps he had no belief in them, and only responded to a
caress with a low growl.
Some weeks passed and Kowalski was no better, on the contrary he seemed
to get worse with every day, and we were all convinced that this
illness was his last. God knows whether he was equally convinced, but
he certainly had a foreboding of his death, for he hardly ever talked
now. For a few days longer he obstinately struggled against the
weakness which was overpowering him, and walked about his yurta, even
tinkered at some brushes which he had begun; at last he gave it up and
took to his bed. One morning, when I had just sat down to my breakfast,
the locksmith Wladyslaw Piotrowski, Kowalski's nearest friend, came to
my window and asked me to accompany him to our patient.
'It might ease his last hour when he sees that he is not quite
forsaken,' said the kind man. 'Perhaps you would like to take a book
with you,' he added. I took the New Testament and went with him.
'Is he so very bad?' I asked on the way.
'I should think so; he looks quite black and says himself that he is
sure he will die to-day.'
We soon arrived at Kowalski's yurta. There was no trace of the usual
sick-room smell of medicines, for Kowalski believed neither in doctors
nor in medicines. But an air of sadness and desolation pervaded the
room. The little dog lay curled up under the bed, from which,
notwithstanding the open window, an unpleasant smell reminded one that
the sick man was no longer able to get up.
He looked so unlike a living being that we concluded, on entering and
seeing him lying there with his eyes closed, that he was dead. The
locksmith went up to the bed, put his hand under the bedclothes and
touched his feet; they were cold. But Kowalski called out loudly and
emphatically as I had never heard him before:
'I am alive! I am glad that you have come, for I should like to speak
to you of death.'
The haste and anxiety with which these words were uttered bore out our
premonition that we had only just come in time; we looked at each
other; Kowalski caught this look and understood it.
'I know,' he said, 'that I shall die soon, it would be vain to hide
from myself what I can see quite clearly. That is why I want to speak
to you. I was afraid no one would come... I was afraid no one would
hear what I have got to say and that he whom you call the Merciful God
would take away my power of speech... I thank you for your thought. May
you not be lonely either when your hour of death calls you from an
Kowalski stopped; only his brow, which was alternately contracted and
smoothed, showed that the dying man was trying with his last remnant of
strength to collect his thoughts and to retain the last spark of life.
It was early morning, and the sun threw two great sheaves of golden
rays through the window on to the wall where the bed stood. From the
wide expanse of fields and the archipelago of islands in the river,
redolent with luxurious vegetation, life and the echoes of life and
movement emanated like a melodious song, a great hymn of thanksgiving
in the bright sunshine; it penetrated to the bed of the dying man and
formed an indescribable contrast to what was passing inside the yurta.
This brightness, this noise as of a great song of life, was like an
irony, like scorn levelled at the deathbed of this living corpse....
Meanwhile Kowalski had begun to speak.
'Long ago,' he said--'it must be about forty years--I was exiled to the
steppes of Orenburg. I was young and strong, I trusted in God and had
confidence in men and in myself. I may have been right or I may have
been wrong, but I thought it was my duty not to leave my energy to the
chance of fate, but to try and find a wider field of activity than was
open to me in this country. Homesickness too urged me on, and after two
years I escaped....
'I was punished by being sent to Tomsk, but this did not daunt me. I
started my life afresh with renewed energy, lived on bread and water
until I had saved enough for what I needed, and escaped again....
'For this second flight I was punished as an obstinate backslider, and
it took several years before I could make another attempt, but that
time I got farther away than before. It was an unusually hard winter, I
had no money and only insufficient clothing. My feet were frostbitten,
and I lost my toes. That was a hard blow, especially as they sent me
beyond the Yenessi this time.
'My situation was difficult; the country was dreary and desolate, it
was hard to earn a living. But although I had no toes I managed to
learn a trade or two, and one or the other used to bring me in a little
income, small but sure.
'This time I waited six years, then, without regard for the state of my
feet, I started off again....
'You see, I had no more confidence in my strength. I was ill and
broken, it was not the same goal as before that drew me westwards.... I
wanted to die there... to die there....
'I dreamt of dying on my mother's grave as of a great happiness.
'My life had been such that no one except my mother had ever been good
to me; I had had no sweetheart, no wife, no children....
'And now, feeling weak and forsaken, I longed for the grave of this one
being who had loved me.
'In sleepless nights I felt her hand touching my head, her kiss and the
hot tears with which she took her last leave of me, conscious perhaps
that our separation would be eternal. I do not know even now whether
the longing for my mother or for my native land was the stronger. But
it was a hard pilgrimage this time. I could not walk fast because of
the wounds on my feet which kept breaking open. I often had to hide for
days in the woods like a wild animal.
'Vultures and crows--ill omens of the end--circled over my head,
scenting their prey. Worn out with hunger I broke down from time to
time, and...fool that I was, I always prayed. I implored the Almighty
God, the merciful God, the just God, the God of the poor, the God of
[Footnote 1: Siberian fugitives look upon them with superstition.]
'"Help me, have mercy on me! Gracious Father! send me death, I ask for
no other mercy than death! I will give it to myself, but only
'Two years passed before I reached the province of Perm. I had never
before got so far. My heart began to beat joyously, in my head there
was only one thought: "I shall see my beloved native soil, and I shall
die at my beloved mother's grave." When I left the Ural behind me I
definitely believed in my salvation, I threw myself down upon the
ground, and for a long, long time I lay there, sobbing and thanking God
for His grace and His mercy. But He, the Merciful, was only preparing
His last blow, and that same day.... Then they took me as far as
'Why did I live on so long in this misery?
'Why did I wait here for such an end as this?
'Because I wanted to see what God intended to do to me. 'Now see what
He has made of a human being who trusted Him like a child, who has
never known what happiness in this world meant, nor demanded it, who
has never received love from anyone but his mother and, although maimed
and crippled, has worked hard until the end, never stretched out his
hands for alms, never stolen or coveted his neighbours' possessions,
who has ever given away the half of what he had... see what He has made
'That is why I hate Him, no longer trust in Him....I don't believe in
His Saints or His Judgment or His Justice; hear me, brothers, I call
you to witness in the hour of my death, so that you should know it and
can testify to it before Him when you die.'
He raised himself with an effort, stretched out his hands towards the
sun and called with a loud voice:
'I, a dying worm, truly acknowledge Thee to be the God of the satiated,
the God of the wicked, the God of the impure, and that Thou hast ruined
me, a guiltless man!...'
The sun had risen higher and was now gilding the bed of pain of this
living skeleton--terrible to behold in his loose skin.
When he sank back exhausted, we were shocked, for we thought that he
would give up the ghost before we had time to comfort him and ease his
'Let us pray for him,' whispered the locksmith. We knelt down; with
trembling hands I pulled out the book; it opened of itself where a
bookmarker had been placed at the fifteenth chapter of the Gospel of
Raising my voice I began to read:
'I am the true Vine and My Father is the Husbandman.'
The dying man's chest heaved violently, his eyes were closed. He was
now quite covered by the golden rays; it seemed as if the sun meant to
reward him at the last moment for his hard life, so closely did the
rays hug him, warming his stiff limbs, calming him, kissing him as a
mother kisses and caresses her drowsy child and wraps it round with her
Kowalski was still alive.
I continued to read the words of Christ, so full of power and faith and
deep, blessed hope:
'If the world hate you, ye know that it hated Me before it hated
The inspiring words of the Comforter of sufferers and the caress of the
vivifying light eased the dying man's pain. He opened his eyes and two
great tears welled forth--the last tears which this man had to spare.
The rays of the sun kissed the tears on his ashen countenance and made
them shine with divine light; it seemed as if they endeavoured to
present to their Creator in pure colours the burning fire which had
consumed this man and was concentrated in his tears.
I read on:
'Verily, verily, I say unto you, that ye shall weep and lament, but the
world shall rejoice: and ye shall be sorrowful, but your sorrow shall
be turned into joy...'
The dying man tried to lift his hands, they fell back powerless, but he
murmured in a low, distinct voice: 'Lord, by Thy pain forgive me!'
I could not read further. In silence we knelt, and the dog stood
between us, puzzled and looking at his master. Once more the dying
man's eyes turned towards us, he opened his mouth, and we heard him say
yet more slowly and weakly: 'Doggy, do not bark at the Almighty.'
The faithful creature threw himself whining upon his master's limp
hand, from which the life had already fled.
Kowalski's eyes closed, a short, dull rattle came from his throat, his
chest sank back, he stretched himself a little: the life of suffering
When we recovered ourselves we heard the violent barking of the dog,
who, without understanding his master's last wish, was faithfully
carrying out the sole duty of his life. He barked and growled
incessantly, and came back from time to time to the bed and his
master's limply hanging hand in expectation of the usual caress.
But his master lay immovable, the cold hand hung stiffly; exhausted and
hoarse the dog ran out again into the enclosure.
We left; but at a long distance from the yurta we could still hear the
barking of the senseless creature.
TWO SKETCHES BY
[Footnote 1: The accent on the Z softens the sound approximately to
that of the French g in _gele_.]
I had spent an hour at the railway station, waiting for the train to
come in. I had stared indifferently at several ladies in turn who were
yawning in the corners of the waiting-room. Then I had tried the effect
of making eyes at a fair-haired young girl with a small white nose,
rosy cheeks, and eyes like forget-me-nots; she had stuck out her tongue
(red as a field-poppy) at me, and I was now at a loss to know what to
do next to kill time.
Fortunately for me two young students entered the waiting-room. They
looked dirty from head to foot, mud-bespattered, untidy, and exhausted
with travelling. One of them, a fair boy with a charming profile,
seemed absent-minded or depressed. He sat down in a corner, took off
his cap, and hid his face in his hands. His companion bought his ticket
for him, sat down beside him, and grasped his hand from time to time.
'Why should you despair? All may yet be well. Listen, Anton.'
'No, it's no good, he is dying, I know it.... I know... perhaps he is
'Don't believe it! Has your father ever had this kind of attack
'He has; he has suffered from his heart for three years. He used to
drink at times. Think of it, there are eight of us, some are young
children, and my mother is delicate. In another six months his pension
would have been due. Terribly hard luck!'
'You are meeting trouble half-way, Anton.'
The bell sounded, and the waiting-room became a scene of confusion.
People seized their luggage and trampled on each other's toes; the
porter who stood at the entrance-door was stormed with questions. There
was bustle and noise everywhere. I entered the third-class carriage in
which the fair-haired student was sitting. His friend had put him into
it, settling him in the corner-seat beside the window, as if he were an
invalid, and urging him to take comfort. It did not come easy to him,
the words seemed to stick in his throat. The fair-haired boy's face
twitched convulsively, and his eyelids closed over his moist eyes.
'Anton, my dear fellow,' the other said, 'well, you understand what I
mean; God knows. You may be sure... confound it all!'
The second bell sounded, and then the third. The sympathizing friend
stepped out of the carriage, and, as the train started, he waved an odd
kind of farewell greeting, as if he were threatening him with his
In the carriage were a number of poor people, Jews, women with
enormously wide cloaks, who had elbowed their way to their seats, and
sat chattering or smoking.
The student stood up and looked out of the window without seeing. Lines
of sparks like living fire passed by the grimy window-pane, and balls
of vapour and smoke, resembling large tufts of wool, were dashed to
pieces and hurried to the ground by the wind. The smoke curled round
the small shrubs growing close to the ground, moistened by the rain in
the valley. The dusk of the autumn day spread a dim light over the
landscape, and produced an effect of indescribable melancholy. Poor
boy! Poor boy!
The loneliness of boundless sorrow was expressed in his weary look as
he gazed out of the window. I knew that the pivot on which all his
emotions turned was the anxiety of uncertainty, and that beyond the
bounds of conscious thought an unknown loom was weaving for him a
shadowy thread of hope. He saw, he heard nothing, while his vacant eyes
followed the balls of smoke. As the train travelled along, I knew that
he was miserable, tired out, that he would have liked to cry quietly.
The thread of hope wound itself round his heart: Who could tell?
perhaps his father was recovering, perhaps all would be well?
Suddenly (I knew it would come), the blood rushed from his face, his
lips went pale and tightened; he was gazing into the far distance with
wide-open eyes. It was as if a threatening hand, piercing the grief,
loneliness and dread that weighed on him, was pointing at him, as if
the wind were rousing him with the cry: 'Beware!' His thread of hope
was strained to breaking-point, and the naked truth, which he had not
quite faced till that minute, struck him through the heart like a
Had I approached him at that instant, and told him I was an omniscient
spirit and knew his village well, and that his father was not lying
dead, he would have fallen at my feet and believed, and I should have
done him an infinite kindness.
But I did not speak to him, and I did not take his hand. All I wished
to do was merely to watch him with the interest and insatiable
curiosity which the human heart ever arouses in me.
'Let my fate go whither it listeth.' (_Oedipus Tyrannus_.)
In the darkest corner of the ward, in the bed marked number
twenty-four, a farm labourer of about thirty years of age had been
lying for several months. A black wooden tablet, bearing the words
'Caries tuberculosa', hung at the head of the bed, and shook at each
movement of the patient. The poor fellow's leg had had to be amputated
above the knee, the result of a tubercular decay of the bone. He was a
peasant, a potato-grower, and his forefathers had grown potatoes before
him. He was now on his own, after having been in two situations; had
been married for three years and had a baby son with a tuft of flaxen
hair. Then suddenly, from no cause that he could tell, his knee had
pained him, and small ulcers had formed. He had afforded himself a
carriage to the town, and there he had been handed over to the hospital
at the expense of the parish.
He remembered distinctly how on that autumn afternoon he had driven in
the splendid, cushioned carriage with his young wife, how they had both
wept with fright and grief, and when they had finished crying had eaten
hard-boiled eggs: but what had happened after that had all become
blurred--indescribably misty. Yet only partially so.
Of the days in the hospital with their routine and monotony, creating
an incomprehensible break in his life, his memory retained nothing; but
the unchanging grief, weighing like a slab of stone on a grave, was
ever present in his soul with inexorable and brutal force during these
many months. He only half recalled the strange wonders that had been
worked on him: bathing, feeding, probing into the wound, and later on
the operation. He had been carried into a room full of gentlemen
wearing aprons spotted with blood; he was conscious also of the
mysterious, intrepid courage which, like a merciful hand, had supported
him from that hour.
After having gazed at the awe-inspiring phenomena which surrounded him
in the semicircle of the hospital theatre, he had slept during the
operation. His simple heart had not worked out the lesson which sleep,
the greatest mistress on earth, teaches. After the operation everything
had been veiled by mortal lassitude. This had continued, but in the
afternoon and at night they had mixed something heavy, like a stone
ball, into his drinking-cup, and waves of warmth had flowed to the toes
of his healthy foot from the cup. Thoughts chased one another swiftly,
like tiny quicksilver balls through some corner of his brain, and while
he lay bathed in perspiration, and his eyelids closed of their own
accord, not in sleep but in unconsciousness, he had been pursued by
strange, half-waking visions.
Everything real seemed to disappear, only dimly lighted, vacant space
remained, pervaded by the smell of chloroform. He seemed to be in the
interior of a huge cone, stretching along the ground like a tunnel. Far
away in the distance, where it narrowed towards the opening, there was
a sparkling, white spot; if he could get there, he might escape. He
seemed to be travelling day and night towards that chink along unending
spiral lines running within the surface of the tunnel; he travelled
under compulsion and with great effort, slowly, like a snail, although
within him something leapt up like a rabbit caught in a snare, or as if
wings were fluttering in his soul. He knew what was beyond that chink.
Only a few steps would lead him to the ridge under the wood... to his
own four strips of potato-field! And whenever he roused himself
mechanically from his apathy he had a vision of the potato-harvest. The
transparent autumn-haze in the fields was bringing objects that were
far off into relief, and making them appear perfectly distinct. He saw
himself together with his young wife, digging beautiful potatoes, large
as their fists.
On the hillock, amid the stubble, the herdsmen were assembled in
groups, their wallets slung round them; they were crouching on their
heels, had collected dry juniper and lighted a fire; with bits of
sticks they were scraping out the baked potatoes from the ashes. The
rising smoke scented the air fragrantly with juniper.
At times, when he was better and more himself, when the fever tormented
him less, he sank into the state of timidity and apprehension known
only to those harassed almost beyond human endurance and to the dying.
Fear oppressed him till his whole being shrank into something less than
the smallest grain; he was hurled by fearful sounds and overawing
obsessions into a bottomless abyss.
At last the wound on his foot began to heal, and the fever to abate.
His mind returned from that other world to the familiar one, and to
reflecting on what was taking place before his eyes. But the nature of
these reflections had changed. Formerly he had felt self-pity arising
from terror; now it was the wild hatred of the wounded man, his
overpowering desire for revenge; his rage turned as fiercely even upon
the unfortunate ones lying beside him as upon those who had maimed him.
But another idea had taken even more powerfully possession of his mind;
his thoughts darted forward like a pack of hounds on the trail, in
frantic pursuit of the power which had thus passed sentence on him.
This condition of lonely self-torment lasted a long while, and
increased his exasperation.
And then, one day, he noticed that his healthy foot was growing stiff
and the ankle swelling. When the head-surgeon came on his daily rounds,
the patient confided his fear to him. The doctor examined the emaciated
limb, unobserved lanced the abscess, perceived that the probe reached
to the bone, rubbed his hands together and looked into the peasant's
face with a sad, doubtful look.
'This is a bad job, my good fellow. It may mean the other foot; was
that what you were thinking of? And you are a bad subject. But we will
do it for you here; you will be better off than in your cottage, we
will give you plenty to eat.' And he passed on, accompanied by his
assistant. At the door he turned back, bent over the sick man, and
furtively, so that no one should see, passed his hand kindly over his
The peasant's mind became a blank; it was as if someone had unawares
dealt him a blow in the dark with a club. He closed his eyes and lay
still for a long time... until an unknown feeling of calm came over
There is an enchanted, hidden spot in the human soul, fastened with
seven locks, which no one and nothing but that picklock, bitter
adversity, can open.
Through the lips of the self-blinded Oedipus, Sophocles makes mention
of this secret place. Within it are hidden marvellous joy, sweet
necessity, the highest wisdom.
As the poor fellow lay silently on his bed, the special conception that
arose in his mind was that of Christ walking on the waves of the raging
sea, quelling the storm.
Henceforward through long nights and wretched days he was looking at
everything from an immeasurable distance, from a safe place, where all
was calm and wholly well, whence everything seemed small, slightly
ludicrous and foolish, and yet lovable.
'And may the Lord Jesus...may He give His peace to all people,' he
whispered to himself. 'Never mind, this will do as well for me!'
A POLISH SCENE
WLADYSLAW ST. REYMONT
[Footnote 1: The stroke softens the l approximately to the sound of w.]
[The place is a solitary inn in Russian Poland, near the Prussian
frontier, kept by a Jew named Herszlik, part of whose occupation is to
smuggle emigrants for America by night across the border. Besides
emigrants and Herszlik are present an old beggar man and his wife or
'doxy', a couple of peasants drinking together, and Jan (or, in
diminutive form, Jasiek), a youth who has just escaped from a prison to
which he had been sentenced for an attack, under great provocation, on
a steward, and now creeps into the inn out of the surrounding forest.]
It was a night of March, a night of rain, cold, and tempest.
The forest, cramped, stiff, soaked to its marrow, and agitated now and
then by an icy shiver, threw out its boughs in a sort of feverish panic
as if to shake the water from them, and roared the wild note of a
creature in torture. At times a damp snow stilled all to helpless
silence, broken by a passing groan or the cry of some frozen bird or
rattle of some body falling on the boughs. Then once more the wind
flung itself with fury on the woods, dug into their depths with its
teeth, tore off boughs, and with a roar of triumph whistled along the
glades and swept the forest as with a besom; or from out of the depths
of space huge mud-coloured clouds, like piles of rotting hay, strangled
the trees in their embrace, or dissolved in a cold unceasing drizzle
that might have penetrated a stone. The roads were deserted, flooded
with a mixture of mud and foul snow; the villages seemed dead, the
fields shrivelled, the rivers ice-fettered; man and life were to be
seen nowhere; night ruled alone.
Only in the single inn of Przylecki shone a small light; it stood in
the middle of the forest at cross roads; a few cottages were visible on
the side of a hill: the rest was the mighty forest.
Jasiek Winciorek pushed forward cautiously from the wood to the road,
and at sight of the blinking light walked stealthily to the window,
peeped in, then in timid perplexity drew back a few steps till a fresh
blast of wind froze him so that the poor boy turned back once more,
crossed himself, and entered.
The inn was large, with a floor of clay, and a black ceiling resting on
walls out of the perpendicular; these had lost their whitewash, and
were pierced by two small windows half-choked up with straw. Directly
opposite the latter, behind a wooden railing, stood a cask resting on
other barrels, above which smoked the red glare of a naphtha lamp. Over
the room lay a dense darkness, only lightened now and then with flashes
from an expiring fire in a large old-world fire-place, before which sat
a pair of beggars. In a corner might be seen a number of persons
huddled together whispering mysteriously. By the cask were two
peasants, one clasping a bottle, the other holding out a glass; they
often drank healths to one another and nodded sleepily. A fat red
damsel was snoring behind the railing. Over all there spread a smell
compounded of whisky, sodden clay, and soaked rags.
At times such a stillness fell on the room that one could hear the
sounds of the forest, the tinkle of the rain on the window-panes, the
crackling of the pine boughs in the fireplace. And then a low door
behind the railing opened with a creak, and there appeared the old grey
head of a Jew, dressed in his praying gown, and singing in a low voice,
while behind him shone a room lighted with small candles, from which
issued Sabbath smells and a quiet monotonous dreary sound of singing.
Jasiek drank a few glasses one after the other, gnawed half-consciously
some mouldy rolls as tough as leather, which he seasoned with a
herring, and looked now at the door, now at the window, or listened to
the murmur of the voices.
'Marry, no, curse it, I won't marry!' suddenly shouted one of the two
peasants, knocking his bottle on the cask and spitting as far as the
shoulder of the beggar man at the fire.
'But you must,' whispered the other, 'or repay the money.'
'God! that's nothing! Jevka!'--this to the girl--'half a pint of
whisky! I pay!'
'Money is a big thing, though a woman is a bigger.'
'No, curse it, I won't marry! I'll sell myself, borrow, pay back the
money, rather than marry that harridan.'
'Just take a drop to my health, Antek: I have something to say to you.'
'You won't get round me. I have said no, and that is no. Why, if I
must, I will run away to Brazil or the end of the world with those folk
'Silly! just take a drop to my health, Antek: I have something to say
They drank healths to one another several times, then began kissing,
then fell silent, for a child was crying in a corner, and a movement
began among the quiet timid crowd.
A tall dried-up peasant appeared out of the darkness and walked out of
Jasiek moved up to the fire, for the cold was in his bones, and putting
his herring on a stick began to toast it over the coals. 'Move up a
bit,' he whispered to the beggar man, who had his feet on his wallet,
and though quite blind, was drying at the fire the soaked strips he
wore round his legs, and talking endlessly in a low voice to the woman
by him; she was cooking something and arranging boughs under a tripod
on which stood a pot.
Jasiek got warmer, and steam as from a bucket of boiling water went up
from his long coat.
'You are badly soaked,' whispered the beggar, sniffing.
'I am,' said Jasiek in a whisper, shivering. The door creaked, but it
was only the thin peasant returning.
'Who is that?' whispered Jasiek, tapping the beggar on the arm.
'Those? I don't know him; but those are silly fools going to Brazil.'
Jasiek said not a word, but went on drying himself and moving his eyes
about the room, where the people, apparently grown uneasy, now talked
with increasing loudness, now fell suddenly silent, while every moment
one of them went out of the inn, and returned immediately.
From the inner room the monotonous chant still reached them. A hungry
dog crept out from nowhere to the fire and began to growl at the
beggars, but getting a blow from a stick he howled with pain, settled
himself in the middle of the room, and with a piteous look gazed at the
steam rising from the pot.
Jasiek was getting warmer; he had eaten his herring and rolls, but
still felt more sharply than ever that he wanted something. He minutely
searched his pockets, but not finding even a farthing there, doubled
himself together and gazed idly at the pot and the beams of the fire.
'You want to eat--eh?' asked the beggar woman presently.
'I have... a small rumbling in my belly.'
'Who is it?' the beggar man softly inquired of the woman.
'Don't be afraid,' she growled with malice: 'he won't give you a
threepenny bit, not so much as a farthing.'
'Yes, a farmer, like you: one who goes about the world'--and she took
the pot off the tripod.
'And there are good people in the world--and wild beasts--and pigs out
of sties.... Hey?' said the beggar man, poking Jasiek with his stick.
'Yes, yes,' answered the boy, not knowing what he said.
'You have something on your mind, I see,' whispered the beggar.
'The Lord Jesus always said: "If you are hungry, eat; if you are
thirsty, drink; but if you are in trouble, don't chatter."'
'Eat a little,' the woman begged the boy; 'it is beggars' food, but it
will do you good,' and she poured out a liberal portion on a plate.
From the bag she drew out a piece of brown bread and put it in the soup
unnoticed; then as he moved up to eat and she saw his worn grey face,
mere skin and bone, pity so moved her that she took out a piece of
sausage and laid it on the bread.
Jasiek could not resist but ate greedily, from time to time throwing a
bone to the dog, who had crept up with entreating eyes.
The beggar man listened a long time; then, when the woman put the pot
into his hands, he raised his spoon and said solemnly:
'Eat, man. The Lord Jesus said, give a beggar a farthing and another
shall repay thee ten. God be with you!'
They ate in silence, till in an interval the beggar rubbed his mouth
with his cuff and said:
'Three things are needful for food to do you good--spirit, salt, bread.
Give us spirit, woman!'
All three drank together and then went on eating.
Jasiek had almost forgotten his danger and threw no more timid looks
around. He just ate, sated himself with warmth, sated slowly the
four-days' hunger that gnawed him, and felt peaceful in the quietness.
The two peasants had left the cask, but the crowd in the corner on
benches or with their bags under their heads on the wet floor were
still quietly dreaming; and still came, but in ever sleepier tones, the
sound of singing from the inner room. And the rain was still falling
and penetrating the roof in some places; it dripped from the ceiling
and formed shining sticky circles of mud on the clay floor. And still
at times the wind shook the inn or howled in the fire-place, scattered
the burning boughs and drove smoke into the room.
'There is something for you too, vagabond!' whispered the woman, giving
the rest of the food to the dog, who flitted about them with beseeching
Then the beggar spoke. 'With food in his belly a man is not badly off,
even in hell,' he said, setting down the empty pot.
'God repay you for feeding me!' said Jasiek, and squeezed the beggar's
hand; the other did not at once let him go, but felt his hand
'For a few years you have not worked with your hands,' he murmured; but
Jan tore his hand away in a fright.
'Sit down,' continued the beggar, 'don't be afraid. The Lord Jesus
said: "All are just men who fear God and help the poor orphan."
Fearnot, man. I am no Judas nor Jew, but an honest Christian and a poor
He thought for a moment, then in a quiet voice said:
'Attend to three things: love the Lord Jesus, never be hungry, and give
to a man more unfortunate than yourself. All the rest is just nothing,
rotten fancies. A wise man should never vex himself uselessly. Ho! we
know a dozen things. Eh, what do you say?'
He pricked up his ears and waited, but Jasiek remained stubbornly
silent, fearing to betray himself; then the beggar brought out his bark
snuffbox, tapped it with his finger, took snuff, sneezed, and handed it
to the boy. Then, bending his huge blind face over the fire, he began
to talk in low monotonous tones.
'There is no justice in the world; all men are Pharisees and rogues;
one man pushes another in front of him out of the way; each tries to be
the first to cheat the other, to eat him up. That wasn't the will of
the Lord Jesus. Ho! go into a squire's house, take off your cap, and
sing, though your throat is bursting, about Jesus and Mary and all the
Saints; then wait--nothing comes. Put in a few prayers about the Lord's
Transfiguration; then wait. Nothing again. No, only the small dogs
whine about your wallet and the maids bustle behind the hedges. Add a
litany--perhaps they give you two farthings or a mouldy bit of bread.
Curse you! I wish you were dirty, half-blind, and had to ask even
beggars for help! Why, after all that praying the whisky to wash my
throat with costs me more than they give!' He spat with disgust.
'But are others better off, eh?' he continued, after a sniff. 'Jantek
Kulik--I dare say you know him--took a little pig of a squire's. And
what enjoyment did he have of it? Precious little. It was a miserable
creature, like a small yard dog; you could drown the whole body of him
in a quart of whisky. Well, for that he was arrested and put in prison
for half a year--and for what? for a miserable pig! as if a pig weren't
one of God's creatures too, and some were meant to die of hunger, and
some to have more than they can stuff into their throats. And yet the
Lord Jesus said: "What a poor man takes, that is as if you had given it
for My sake." Amen. Won't you take a drink?'
'God repay you, but it has already turned my head a bit!'
'Silly! the Lord Jesus himself drank at feasts. Drinking is no sin; it
is a sin, sure enough, to swill like a pig or to sit without talking
when good folk are gossiping, but not to drink the gift of God to the
bottom. You just drink my health,' he whispered resolutely.
He drank himself from the bottle with a long gurgle in his throat; then
handing it to Jasiek, said merrily:
'Drink, orphan. Observe only three things--to work the whole week, to
say your Paternoster, and on Sunday to give to the unfortunate, and
then you shall have redemption for your soul. Man, if you can't drink a
gallon, drink a quart!'
Thereupon all fell silent. The woman was sleeping with her head
drooping by the extinct flame, the man had opened wide his
cataract-covered eyes at the glowing coals, and once and again nodded
vigorously. In the corner the whispers were silent; only the wind
struck the panes more violently than ever and shook the door, and from
the inner room burst forth the voices in an ecstasy, it seemed, of pity
Jasiek, overcome by the warmth of the whisky, felt sleepy, stretched
his legs out towards the fire, and felt an irresistible desire to lie
down. He fought against it with energetic movements, but every now and
then became utterly stiff and remembered nothing. A pleasant warm mist
compounded out of the beams of the fire, kindly words, and stillness,
wrapped him in darkness and a deep sense of freedom and security. At
times he woke suddenly, he could not have said why, glanced over the
room, or listened for a moment to the beggar, who was asleep but still
muttered: 'For all souls in Purgatory--Ave Maria, gratia plena,' and
then, 'Man, I tell you that a good beggar should have a stick with a
point, a deep wallet, and a long Paternoster.' Here he woke up, and
feeling Jasiek's eyes on him, recovered his wits and began to speak:
'Hear what an old man says. Take a drop to my health, and listen. Man,
I tell you, be prudent, but don't force it into any one's eyes. Note
everything, and yet be blind to everything. If you live with a fool, be
a greater fool; with a lame man, have no legs at all; with a sick man,
die for him. If men give you a farthing, thank them as if it were a bit
of silver; if they set dogs on you, take it as your offering to the
Lord Jesus; if they beat you with a stick, say your Paternoster.
'Man, I tell you, do as I advise and you shall have your wallet full,
your belly like a mountain, and you shall lead the whole world in a
string like silly cattle.... Eh, eh, I am a man not born to-day but one
that knows a dozen things. He that can observe the way of the world, no
trouble shall come to him. At the squire's house take your revenge on
the peasants; that is a sure farthing and perhaps a morsel from the
dinner; at the priest's abuse the peasants and the squires; that is two
farthings sure, and absolution too; and when you are in the cottages,
abuse everything, and you will eat millet and bacon, and drink whisky
mixed with fat.'
Here he began to drowse, still murmuring incoherently, 'Man, I tell
you... for the soul of Julina... Ave Maria...', and rocked on the
'Gratia plena... help a poor cripple!' This was the woman babbling in
her sleep, as she raised her head from the fire-place; but the man woke
up suddenly and cried, 'Be quiet, silly!' for the entrance door was
thrown loudly open, and there pushed in among them a tall yellow-haired
'On to the road,' he called in a deep voice, 'it's time'; and at once
the whole crowd of sleepers sprang to their feet, began to put their
loads on their backs, to get ready, to push forward into the middle of
the room and again for no reason to retire. A low tumult of
sound--abuse or complaint--burst from all: there were hot passages of
words, cries, curses, gesticulations, or the beginnings of muttered
prayers, noise, and crying children--but all kept under restraint, and
yet filling the gloomy blackened room with a sense of alarm.
Jasiek awoke completely, and with his shoulders pressed to the now
cooling fireplace, looked round curiously at the people as far as he
could make them out.
'Where are they going?' he asked the beggar.
'Is it far?'
'Ho! ho! it's the end of the world, beyond the tenth sea.'
'First because they are fools, and second because they are
'And do they know the way?' Jasiek asked again, hugely astonished.
But the beggar was no longer answering him; pushing on the woman with a
stick, he came forward into the middle of the room, fell on his knees,
and began in a sort of plaintive chant:
'You are going beyond the seas, the mountains, the forests--to the end
of the world. The Lord Jesus bless you, orphans! The Virgin of
Czenstochowa keep you, and all the saints help you in return for the
farthing that you give to this poor cripple...To the Lord's
Transfiguration! Ave Maria....'
'Gratia plena: the Lord be with you,' murmured the woman, kneeling at
'Blessed art thou among women,' answered the crowd and pressed forward.
All knelt; a subdued sobbing arose; heads were bowed; trusting and
resigned hearts breathed their emotions in prayer. A warm glow of trust
kindled the dull eyes and pinched faces, straightened the bent
shoulders, and gave them such force that they rose from their prayer
heartened and unconquerable.
'Herszlik, Herszlik!' they called to the Jew, who had disappeared into
the inner room. They were eager now to go into that unknown world, so
terrible and yet so alluring for its very strangeness; eager to take on
their shoulders their new fate and to escape from the old.
Herszlik came out armed with a dark lantern, counted the people, made
them range themselves in pairs, opened the door: they began to move
like some phantom army of misery, a column of ragged shadows, and
disappeared at once in the darkness and rain. For a moment there shone
in the gloom and amid the tossing trees the solitary light of their
guide, for a moment one could hear amid wailing a tremulous hymn, 'He
who casts himself on the care of the Lord....' Then the storm broke out
again in what seemed like the groan of dying masses.
'Poor creatures! orphans!' whispered Jasiek; a wild grief filled his
Then he returned to the inn, now dumb and dark, for the girl had
extinguished the light and gone to sleep, and the singing had ceased in
the inner room: only the beggar remained awake; he and the woman were
counting the people's alms.
'A poor parish! two threepenny bits and five and twenty farthings--the
whole show! Ha! May the Lord Jesus never remember them or help them!'
He went on babbling, but Jasiek no longer listened. Crouched in the
fire-place he hid himself as best he could in his still wet cloak and
fell into a stony sleep.
A good while after midnight he was awakened by a sharp tug; a light
shone straight into his eyes.
'Hey, brother, get up! Who are you? Have you your passport?'
He came to his senses at once: two policemen stood over him.
'Have you your passport?' the policeman asked again, shaking him like a
bundle of straw.
But for answer Jasiek jumped to his feet and struck the man with his
fist between the eyes, so that he dropped his lantern and fell
backwards, while Jasiek darted to the door and ran out. The other
policeman chased him, and being unable to catch him, fired.
Jasiek tottered a moment, shrieked, and fell in the mud, then jumped up
at once and was lost in the darkness of the forest.
WLADYSLAW ST. REYMONT
'Father, eh, father, get up, do you hear?--Eh, get a move on!'
'Oh God, oh Blessed Virgin! Aoh!' groaned the old man, who was being
violently shaken. His face peeped out from under his sheepskin, a
sunken, battered, and deeply-lined face, of the same colour as the
earth he had tilled for so many years; with a shock of hair, grey as
the furrows of ploughed fields in autumn. His eyes were closed;
breathing heavily he dropped his tongue from his half-open bluish mouth
with cracked lips.
'Get up! hi!' shouted his daughter.
'Grandad!' whimpered a little girl who stood in her chemise and a
cotton apron tied across her chest, and raised herself on tiptoe to
look at the old man's face.
'Grandad!' There were tears in her blue eyes and sorrow in her grimy
little face. 'Grandad!' she called out once more, and plucked at the
'Shut up!' screamed her mother, took her by the nape of the neck and
thrust her against the stove.
'Out with you, damned dog!' she roared, when she stumbled over the old
half-blind bitch who was sniffing the bed. 'Out you go! will you...you
carrion!' and she kicked the animal so violently with her clog that it
tumbled over, and, whining, crept towards the closed door. The little
girl stood sobbing near the stove, and rubbed her nose and eyes with
her small fists.
'Father, get up while I am still in a good humour!'
The sick man was silent, his head had fallen on one side, his breathing
became more and more laboured. He had not much longer to live.
'Get up. What's the idea? Do you think you are going to do your dying
here? Not if I know it! Go to Julina, you old dog! You've given the
property to Julina, let her look after you...come now...while I'm yet
'Oh blessed Child Jesus! oh Mary....'
A sudden spasm contracted his face, wet with anxiety and sweat. With a
jerk his daughter tore away the feather-bed, and, taking the old man
round the middle, she pulled him furiously half out of the bed, so that
only his head and shoulders were resting on it; he lay motionless like
a piece of wood, and, like a piece of wood, stiff and dried up.
'Priest.... His Reverence...' he murmured under his heavy breathing.
'I'll give you your priest! You shall kick your bucket in the pigsty,
you sinner...like a dog!' She seized him under the armpits, but dropped
him again directly, and covered him entirely with the feather-bed, for
she had noticed a shadow flitting past the window. Some one was coming
up to the house.
She scarcely had time to push the old man's feet back into the bed.
Blue in the face, she furiously banged the feather-bed and pushed the
The wife of the peasant Dyziak came into the room.
'Christ be praised.'
'In Eternity...' growled the other, and glanced suspiciously at her out
of the corners of her eyes.
'How do you do? Are you well?'
'Thank God... so so...'
'How's the old man? Well?'
She was stamping the snow off her clogs near the door.
'Eh... how should he be well? He can hardly fetch his breath any more.'
'Neighbour... you don't say so... neighbour...' She was bending down
over the old man.
'Priest,' he sighed.
'Dear me... just fancy... dear me, he doesn't know me! The poor man
wants the priest. He's dying, that's certain, he's all but dead
already... dear me! Well, and did you send for his Reverence?'
'Have I got any one to send?'
'But you don't mean to let a Christian soul die without the sacrament?'
'I can't run off and leave him alone, and perhaps...he may recover.'
'Don't you believe it... hoho... just listen to his breathing. That
means that his inside is withering up. It's just as it was with my
Walek last year when he was so ill.'