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[An incident during the early part of the World War, when the Russians, retreating before the victorious Austro-German armies, destroyed everything.]

Mme Rygier-Nalkowska, who, with Kaden-Bandrowski, belonged to the young and modern group of Polish writers, was a strong feminist of courageous views, and a keen satirist of certain national and social conventions. The present volume only contains a short sketch, a personal experience of hers during the early part of the War. It would be considered a very daring thing for a Polish lady to venture voluntarily into the zone of the Russian army, but her little sketch shows the individual Russian to be as human as any other soldier.


At the time when the bridges over the Vistula still existed, connecting by stone and iron the banks of the town now split in two, I drove to the opposite side of the river into the country to my abandoned home, for I thought I might still succeed in transporting to the town the rest of the articles I had left behind, and so preserve them from a doubtful fate.

I was specially anxious to bring back the cases full of books that had been early packed and duly placed in a garret. They included one part of the library that had long ago been removed, but owing to their considerable weight they had been passed over in the hurry of the first removal.

The house had been locked up and entrusted to the sure care of Martin, an old fellow bent half to the ground, who with his wife also kept an eye on the rest of the buildings, the garden, and the forest.

When I arrived I found the whole of my wild, forgotten forest-world absolutely changed and transformed into one great camp. But the empty wood was moving like a living thing, like the menacing 'Birnam wood' before the eyes of Macbeth. It was full of an army, with each of their handsome big horses tied to a pine in the forest. Farther off across the roots could be seen small grey tents stretched on logs. Most of the exhausted blackened men were lying all over the ground and sleeping among the quiet beasts. Along the peaceful, silky forest paths, in a continuous line, like automobiles in the Monte Pincio park, stood small field kitchens on wheels, gunpowder boxes, and carts.

At the foot of the forest, on the flowery meadow, unmown this year, were feeding pretty Ukraine cattle driven from some distant place. Quiet little sheep, not brought up in our country, were eating grass on a neighbouring hillock.

Martin's bent figure was hastily coming along the road from the house, making unintelligible signs. When he was quite close he explained in a low discontented voice, and as if washing his hands of all responsibility, that I had been robbed. 'I was going round,' he said, 'this very morning, as it was my duty to do. There was no one to be seen. Now the whole forest is full of soldiers. They came, opened the house, and stole absolutely everything. My wife came upon them as they were going out!'

'What? Stole everything?' I asked.

Martin was silent a moment; at last he said: 'Well, for instance, the samovar; absolutely everything!'

I found the front door, in fact, wide open, and in it Martin's wife, with gloom depicted on her face. The floors were covered with articles dragged out of the drawers in the rooms on the upper floor. In the garrets scores of books in the most appalling disorder were scattered from out of parcels and boxes. Unbound volumes had been shaken, so that single sheets and maps were found in various places or not found at all.

I went into the veranda. In the green of the astonished garden, now paling in the dusk, men were sleeping here and there. There was a 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.

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