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Selected Polish Tales by Various

Part 7 out of 7

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specially large swarm in the part of the garden where ripe raspberries
were growing. Nearer the house, under a shady d'Amarlis pear tree, four
soldiers were lying and playing at cards. They all had attached to
their caps masks to protect them from poison-gas with two thick glasses
for the eyes, and with this second great pair of eyes on them their
heads looked like those of certain worms. In the packs of cards I
recognized without trouble some that used to lie by our fire-place. I
went up to the soldiers and pointed out that they had plundered my
house, and that I missed several things, and was anxious to find them,
especially women's dresses not of use to any one there, and that I
wanted to be assured that no one would come into the house in
future--at least till I had packed afresh the damaged books and
collected what remained.

I could speak freely, for none of them so much as thought of
interrupting me. Then I was silent, whereupon the soldier lying nearest
raised his head--the movement put me in mind of a hydrostatic
balance--gave me a long look and said: 'What have we to do with your
books? We don't even understand your language!' Then, looking at me
amiably with his double pair of eyes, he took a bite of a half-ripe
pear as green as a cucumber.

'Nothing to be got here: you must go to an officer,' Martin advised, as
he stood a little to the side of me.

The officers had their quarters about a quarter of a mile away, in a
small house near the forest path. The mist passed off, and in the
darkness in the middle of the wood a number of fires shone. One could
hear a confused noise, unknown soldiers' songs, and mournful music. We
soon reached our destination. We were asked to go into the nearly empty
room, where there was a murmur of voices of soldiers; they were all
standing. At a long table, by the light of a small candle without a
candlestick, two men were writing something, and one was dipping in a
plate proofs of photographs. Some one asked if I felt any fear, and
when I hastened to reassure him entirely, he gave me a chair. Martin
stood, doubled up, at the door.

A moment later a young officer, informed by a soldier of my arrival,
came down from above, clapped his spurs together in a salute and
inquired what I wanted. When he heard my business his brow darkened and
he became severe. 'Till now we have had no instance of such an
occurrence,' he informed me with much dignity, and his voice sounded
sincere. 'Where is the place?' he asked. 'At the end of the wood?'

'Quite right,' I answered.

'Ah, then, it is not our soldiers,' he said with relief; 'there is a
detachment of machine gunners there, and they have no officers at all.'

He expressed a wish, in spite of the lateness of the hour, to examine
the damage personally with two other officers. They assured me that the
things were bound to be found, and punishment would fall on the guilty
under the severe military law.

We all walked back through the camp by a forest track which I had known
from childhood as well as the paths of my own garden. The mist had
thickened, the fires seemed veiled as with cobwebs. Everywhere around
horses were eating hay and scraping up the ground solid with pine-tree
roots. Songs ended in silence and began again farther off.

On the way I explained directly to the officers that my special object
was not to get back the things or to punish the thieves, and certainly
not according to 'the severe military law'. How was I to trace the
thieves? My watchman would certainly not recognize them, because he was
not familiar with shoulder straps, and would say that in that respect
all soldiers were alike. I was oniy afraid of further damage in the
house, its locks being rotten, and what I desired was that in case the
army stayed there, a guard should be appointed.

So we reached the house. Martin conducted the gentlemen through the
rooms, and by the light of a candle showed them the condition of
things. The officers, with obvious annoyance, discovered a 'veritable
pogrom'. They could not be expected to understand what the loss
incurred by the scattering of so many books meant to me; one of them
smelt of English 'Sweet Pea' perfume, like a bouquet of flowers. Yet
they clinked their spurs together, and as they went out they again
apologized for the injury done and appointed a sentry, who went on
guard at midnight.


Day came fall of clouds that hung right over the tops of the trees,
full of wind and cold, but dry--quite a genuine summer day.

Round the house from early morning soldiers were moving about,
mitigating the weariness of the man on guard. Now one, now another
wanted to see how the pillaged house looked. Quite simply they walked
through the open door into the interior, finishing what remained of the
unripe apples they had picked in the garden. One stood still on the
threshold, put his hand to his cap, bowed, and duly asked, 'if the lady
would allow?'

Then he entered, stooped, and picked up two books from the ground. 'May
I be permitted to take the liberty of asking to whom these books
belong? What is the reason for their exceedingly great number? Do they
serve a special department of study?' He made his inquiries in such a
stilted way that I was forced laboriously to keep my answers on the
same level. He owned he would be happy if I would agree that he should
help in the work, for he had not had a book in his hand for a year. He
therefore stayed in the garret and with the anxiety of a genuine
bibliomaniac collected volumes of similar size and shape, put together
scattered maps and tied up bundles. Martin looked distrustfully at this
assistant, and annoyance was depicted on the face of Martin's wife. In
front of the house one of the soldiers had brought cigarettes to the
man on guard. Another turned to him ironically: 'Well, under the
circumstances I suppose you are going to light one?'

'You are not allowed to light a cigarette on guard?'

'It wouldn't be allowed; but perhaps, as there is no officer to see

The speaker was a young, fair-haired, amiable boy, assistant to an
engine driver in some small town in Siberia. He was quite ready to
relate his history. He could not wonder sufficiently how it came to
pass that he was still alive. He had run away from the trenches at S.,
certain that he would die if he were not taken prisoner. The fire of
the enemy was concentrated on their entrenchment, so as to cut off all
chance of escape. Every one round him fell, and he was constantly
feeling himself to ascertain that he was not wounded. 'You see, lady,
when they turn their whole fire on one spot, you must get away; it
rains so thick that no one can stand it.'

'Well, and didn't you fire just as thick?'

He looked with amiable wonder. 'When we had nothing to fire?' he said

Well, somehow it all ended happily. But, then, the others, his
companions...ah, how dashing they had been, what fellows! An admirable,
glorious army, the S. Regiment! Almost everyone was killed; it was sad
to see them. Now they had to fill up the gaps with raw recruits; but it
was no longer the old army; there will never be such fighting again....
It will be hard to discipline them. They had fought continuously for a
year. A whole year in the war! They had been close to Drialdow, in
Lwow, even close to Cracow itself. 'Do you know Cracow, lady?'

'I do.'

'Well, then, just there, just five miles from Cracow. The bitter cold
of a windy day penetrated to our bones. To think that the town was only
five miles off!'

I went away to return to the packing of my books. At the door I noticed
a woman standing, a neighbour; she was frightened and timid.

'I suppose they have robbed you, lady?'

'They have.'

'And now they are at it in my place,' she said softly. 'Their cattle
have eaten up my whole meadow, and they are tearing up everything in my
kitchen-garden. I was looking this morning; not a cucumber left.
To-morrow they will begin mowing the oats; the officer gave me an
advance in money, and the rest he paid with note of hand. Is it true
that they are going to burn everything?'

'I don't know.'

The new watchman came up, young, black-eyed, a gloomy Siberian
villager. When he laughed, his teeth shone like claws.

'We have stolen nothing, but we are ordered to do penance,' he said
defiantly to Martin. 'Very well, we'll do it. It was worse in the
trenches--a great deal worse! Often we were so close to the enemy that
we could see them perfectly. We used to take off our caps, raise them
in the air; they fired. If they hit, then we waved a white
handkerchief: that meant they had made a hit. Later on they would show
their caps and we fired.'

'Are you from a distance?' Martin asked.

'From Siberia,' he answered, and turned his head. 'We were four
brothers all serving in the army; two still write to me, the fourth is
gone. Our father is an old man, and neither ploughs nor sows. He sold a
beautiful colt for 150 roubles, for what is the use of a horse when
there is no more farming? God! what a country this is,' he continued
with pity. 'With us in Siberia a farmer with no more than ten cows is
called poor. We are rich! We have land where wheat grows like anything.
Manure we cart away and burn; we've no use for it. Ah! Siberia!'

The woman, my neighbour, sat in silence. It was strange to her to hear
of this country as the Promised Land. When she had to go she said,
thoughtfully and nervously: 'Of course if I hadn't sold him the oats
they would have taken them. Even those two roubles on account were
better than that.'

I went upstairs again, and by evening the work of packing the books and
things was completed.

The soldier who loved books made elaborate remarks on them also to his
simple comrades. He spoke about the psychical aspect of fighting, the
physiology of heroic deeds, the resignation of those destined for
death, &c. He was a thoughtful man and unquestionably sensitive; but
all that he said had the stamp of oriental thought, systematically
arranged in advance and quite perfectly expressed at the moment, free
from the immediate naivete of elementary knowledge.

'Do you belong,' I said, 'to this detachment of machine gunners?'

'Unquestionably; I am, as you see, lady, a simple soldier.'

'I should like to see a machine gun at close quarters. Can I?'

I immediately perceived that I had asked something out of order. He was
confused and turned pale.

'I have never seen a machine gun,' I continued, 'up to now; but, of
course, if there are any difficulties...'

'It is not that,' he answered, with hesitation. 'I must tell you
honestly, lady, we haven't a single cartridge left.'

He checked himself and was silent; at that moment he did not show the
repose of a psychologist.

'Do you understand, lady?'

'I do.'

'And also we have absolutely no officers. There is nothing but what you
see there in the forest; the rest are pitiful remnants--some 200
soldiers left out of two regiments.'

Early next day Martin joyously informed me that in the night the
soldiers had gone away. They had burnt nothing, but it was likely that
another detachment would come in by the evening.

'And the soldier who helped you to pack was here very early. I told him
the lady was asleep, so he only left this card.'

_It was a visiting card with a bent edge; at the bottom was written,
in pencil and in Roman characters,_


'Yes, my friend,' I thought to myself, 'that is just the souvenir I
should have expected you to leave me after plundering me right and
left... a "P.P.C." card! And my deliverance from you means destruction
to somebody else's woods, house, and garden.'

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