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The Outpost 

by Boleslaw Prus (Aleksander Glowacki)

The river Bialka springs from under a hill no bigger than a cottage; the water murmurs in its little hollow like a swarm of bees getting ready for their flight.

For the distance of fifteen miles the Bialka flows on level ground. Woods, villages, trees in the fields, crucifixes by the roadside show up clearly and become smaller and smaller as they recede into the distance. It is a bit of country like a round table on which human beings live like a butterfly covered by a blue flower. What man finds and what another leaves him he may eat, but he must not go too far or fly too high.

Fifteen to twenty miles farther to the south the country begins to change. The shallow banks of the Bialka rise and retreat from each other, the flat fields become undulating, the path leads ever more frequently and steeply up and down hill.

The plain has disappeared and given place to a ravine; you are surrounded by hills of the height of a many-storied house; all are covered with bushes; sometimes the ascent is steep, sometimes gradual. The first ravine leads into a second, wilder and narrower, thence into a succession of nine or ten. Cold and dampness cling to you when you walk through them; you climb one of the hills and find yourself surrounded by a network of forking and winding ravines.

A short distance from the river-banks the landscape is again quite different. The hills grow smaller and stand separate like great ant-hills. You have emerged from the country of ravines into the broad valley of the Bialka, and the bright sun shines full into your eyes.

If the earth is a table on which Providence has spread a banquet for creation, then the valley of the Bialka is a gigantic, long-shaped dish with upturned rim. In the winter this dish is white, but at other seasons it is like majolica, with forms severe and irregular, but beautiful. The Divine Potter has placed a field at the bottom of the dish and cut it through from north to south with the ribbon of the Bialka sparkling with waves of sapphire blue in the morning, crimson in the evening, golden at midday, and silver in moonlit nights.

When He had formed the bottom, the Great Potter shaped the rim, taking care that each side should possess an individual physiognomy.

The west bank is wild; the field touches the steep gravel hills, where a few scattered hawthorn bushes and dwarf birches grow. Patches of earth show here and there, as though the turf had been peeled. Even the hardiest plants eschew these patches, where instead of vegetation the surface presents clay and strata of sand, or else rock showing its teeth to the green field.

The east bank has a totally different character; it forms an amphitheatre with three tiers. The first tier above the field is of mould and contains a row of cottages surrounded by trees: this is the village. On the second tier, where the ground is clay, stands the manor-house, almost on top of the village, with which an avenue of old lime-trees connects it. To the right and left extend the manor-fields,large and rectangular, sown with wheat, rye, and peas, or else lying fallow. The sandy soil of the third tier is sown with rye or oats and fringed by the pine-forest, its contours showing black against the sky.

The northern ridge contains little hills standing singly. One of them is the highest in the neighbourhood and is crowned by a solitary pine. This hill, together with two others, is the property of the gospodarz[1] The gospodarstwo is like a hermitage; it is a long way from the village and still farther from the manor-house.

Josef Slimak.

Slimak's cottage is by the roadside, the front door opening on to the road, the back door into the yard; the cowhouse and pigsty are under one roof, the barn, stable, and cart-shed forming the other three sides of the square courtyard.

The peasants chaff Slimak for living in exile like a Sibiriak.[2] It is true, they say, that he lives nearer to the church, but on the other hand he has no one to open his mouth to.

However, his solitude is not complete. On a warm autumn day, when the white-coated gospodarz is ploughing on the hill with a pair of horses, you can see his wife and a girl, both in red petticoats, digging up potatoes.

Between the hills the thirteen-year-old Jendrek[3] minds the cows and performs strange antics meanwhile to amuse himself. If you look more closely you will also find the eight-year-old Stasiek[4] with hair as white as flax, who roams through the ravines or sits under the lonely pine on the hill and looks thoughtfully into the valley.

That gospodarstwo--a drop in the sea of human interest--was a small world in itself which had gone through various phases and had a history of its own.

For instance, there was the time when Josef Slimak had scarcely seven acres of land and only his wife in the cottage. Then there came two surprises, his wife bore him a son--Jendrek,--and as the result of the servituty[5] his holding was increased by three acres.

Both these circumstances created a great change in the gospodarz's life; he bought another cow and pig and occasionally hired a labourer.

Some years later his second son, Stasiek, was born. Then Slimakowa[6] hired a woman by way of an experiment for half a year to help her with the work.

Sobieska stayed for nine months, then one night she escaped to the village, her longing for the public-house having become too strong. Her place was taken by 'Silly Zoska'[7] for another six months. Slimakowa was always hoping that the work would grow less, and she would be able to dispense with a servant. However, 'Silly Zoska' stayed for six years, and when she went into service at the manor the work at the cottage had not grown less. So the gospodyni engaged a fifteen-year-old orphan, Magda, who preferred to go into service, although she had a cow, a bit of land, and half a cottage of her own. She said that her uncle beat her too much, and that her other relations only offered her the cold comfort that the more he applied the stick the better it would be for her.

Up till then Slimak had chiefly done his own farm work and rarely hired a labourer. This still left him time to go to work at the manor with his horses, or to carry goods from the town for the Jews.

When, however, he was summoned more and more often to the manor, he found that the day-labourer was not sufficient, and began to look out for a permanent farm-hand.

One autumn day, after his wife had been rating him severely for not yet having found a farmhand, it chanced that Maciek Owczarz,[8] whose foot had been crushed under a cart, came out of the hospital. The lame man's road led him past Slimak's cottage; tired and miserable he sat down on a stone by the gate and looked longingly into the entrance. The gospodyni was boiling potatoes for the pigs, and the smell was so good, as the little puffs of steam spread along the highroad, that it went into the very pit of Maciek's stomach. He sat there in fascination, unable to move.

'Is that you, Owczarz?' Slimakowa asked, hardly recognizing the poor wretch in his rags.

'Indeed, it is I,' the man answered miserably.

'They said in the village that you had been killed.'

'I have been worse off than that; I have been in the hospital. I wish I had been left under the cart, I shouldn't be so hungry now.'

The gospodyni became thoughtful.

'If only one could be sure that you wouldn't die, you could stay here as our farm-hand.'

The poor fellow jumped up from his seat and walked to the door, dragging his foot.

'Why should I die?' he cried, 'I am quite well, and when I have a bit to eat I can do the work of two. Give me barszcz[9] and I will chop up a cartload of wood for you. Try me for a week, and I will plough all those fields. I will serve you for old clothes and patched boots, so long as I have a shelter for the winter.'

Here Maciek paused, astonished at himself for having said so much, for he was silent by nature.

Slimakowa looked him up and down, gave him a bowl of barszcz and another of potatoes, and told him to wash in the river. When her husband came home in the evening Maciek was introduced to him as the farm-hand who had already chopped wood and fed the cattle.

Slimak listened in silence. As he was tenderhearted he said, after a pause:

'Well, stay with us, good man. It will be better for us and better for you. And if ever--God grant that may not happen--there should be no bread in the cottage at all, then you will be no worse off than you are to-day. Rest, and you will set about your work all right.'

Thus it came about that this new inmate was received into the cottage. He was quiet as a mouse, faithful as a dog, and industrious as a pair of horses, in spite of his lameness.

After that, with the exception of the yellow dog Burek, no additions were made to Slimak's household, neither children nor servants nor property. Life at the gospodarstwo went with perfect regularity. All the labour, anxiety, and hopes of these human beings centred in the one aim: daily bread. For this the girl carried in the firewood, or, singing and jumping, ran to the pit for potatoes. For this the gospodyni milked the cows at daybreak, baked bread, and moved her saucepans on and off the fire. For this Maciek, perspiring, dragged his lame leg after the plough and harrow, and Slimak, murmuring his
morning-prayers, went at dawn to the manor-barn or drove into the town to deliver the corn which he had sold to the Jews.

For the same reason they worried when there was not enough snow on the rye in winter, or when they could not get enough fodder for the cattle; or prayed for rain in May and for fine weather at the end of June. On this account they would calculate after the harvest how much corn they would get out of a korzec,[10] and what prices it would fetch. Like bees
round a hive their thoughts swarmed round the question of daily bread. They never moved far from this subject, and to leave it aside altogether was impossible. They even said with pride that, as gentlemen were in the world to enjoy themselves and to order people about, so peasants existed for the purpose of feeding themselves and others.

Footnote 1: 
Gospodarz: the owner of a small holding, as distinct from the villager, who owns no land and is simply an agricultural labourer. The word, which means host, master of the house, will be used throughout the book. 
Gospodyni: hostess, mistress of the holding. 
Gospodarstwo: the property.
Footnote 2:
Sibiriak: a person of European birth or extraction living in Siberia.
Footnote 3:
Polish spelling, _Jedrek_ (pronounced as given, Jendrek, with the French sound of _en_: Andrew.
Footnote 4:
Stasiek: diminutive of Stanislas.
Footnote 5:
Servituty: pieces of land which, on the abolition of serfdom, the landowners had to cede to the peasants formerly their serfs. The settlement was left to the discretion of the owners, and much bargaining and discontent on both sides resulted therefrom; the peasants had to pay percentage either in labour or in produce to the landowner.
Footnote 6:
Slimakowa: Polish form for Mrs. Slimak.
Footnote 7:
Zoska: diminutive of Sophia.
Footnote 8:
Pronunciation approximately: Ovcharge. _Maciek_(pron. Machik): Matthew.
Footnote 9:
Pronunciation approximately: barsht. The national dish of the peasants; it is made with beetroot and bread, tastes slightly sour, and is said to be delicious.
Footnote 10:
A korzec is twelve hundred sheaves.
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Boleslaw Prus
(Aleksander Glowacki)
Polish journalist, short-story writer, novelist of the Polish Positivist period and a major representative of 19th century realism in Polish literature Boleslaw Prus (born Aleksander Glowacki), was the one of the most loved writers by his own countrymen. His books were written partly with a moral object, as each was dealing with a social evil. But while he exposes the evil, his warm heart and strong sense of justice--combined with a sense of humour--make him fair and even generous to all.

He was one of the most important figures in Polish letters, and one of the most distinctive voices in world literature.

An indelible mark was left on Prus by his experiences as a 15-year old soldier in Poland's 1863 Uprising, in which he suffered severe battle contusions and imprisonment by Tsarist Russian authorities. At age 25 he settled into a distinguished 40-year career in journalism. As a sideline, he began writing short stories.

He is the author of four major novels on great questions of the day: The Outpost (1886) on the Polish peasant; The Doll (1889) on the aristocracy, townspeople, and on idealists struggling to bring about social reforms; The New Woman (1893) on feminist concerns; and his only historical novel, Pharaoh (1895), on mechanisms of political power.
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