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The Outpost 

by Boleslaw Prus (Aleksander Glowacki)
CHAPTER X

The loss of his horses had almost driven Slimak crazy. Beating Maciek and kicking him out had not exhausted his anger. He felt the room oppressive, walked out into the yard and ran up and down with clenched fists and bloodshot eyes, waiting for a chance to vent his temper.

He remembered that he ought to feed the cows and went into the stable, where he pushed the animals about, and when one clumsily trod on his foot, he seized a fork and beat her mercilessly. He kicked Burek's body behind the barn.'You damned dog, if you had not taken bread from strangers, I should still have my horses!'

He returned to the room and threw himself on the bench with such violence that he upset the block for wood-chopping. Jendrek laughed, but his father unbuckled his belt and did not stop beating him till the boy crept, bleeding, under the bench. With the belt in his hand Slimak waited for his wife to make a remark. But she remained silent, only holding on to the chimney-piece for support.

'What makes you stagger? Haven't you got over yesterday's vodka?'

'Something's wrong with me,' she answered low.

He decided to strap on his belt. 'What's wrong?'

'I can't see, and there's a noise in my ears. Is any one whistling?'

'Don't drink vodka and you'll hear no noises,' he said, spitting, and went out. It surprised him that she had made no remark after the thrashing he had given Jendrek, and having no one to beat, he seized an axe and chopped wood until nightfall, eating nothing all day. Logs and splinters fell round him, he felt as if he were revenging himself on his enemies, and when he left off, stiff and tired, his shirt soaked with perspiration, his anger had gone from him.

He was surprised to find no one in the room and peeped into the alcove; Slimakowa was lying on the bed.

'What's the matter'

'I'm not well, but it's nothing.'

'The fire has gone out.'

'Out?' she asked vaguely, raising herself. She got up and lighted the fire with difficulty, her husband watching her.

'You see,' he said presently, 'you got hot yesterday and then you would drink water out of the Jew's pewter pot and unbutton your jacket. You have caught cold.'

'It's nothing,' she said ill-humouredly, pulled herself together and warmed up the supper. Jendrek crept out and took a spoon, but cried instead of eating.

During the night, at about the hour when the unhappy Maciek was drawing his last breath in the ravines, Slimakowa was seized with violent fits of shivering. Slimak covered her with his sheepskin and it passed off. She got up in the morning, and although she complained of pains, she went about her work. Slimak was depressed.

Towards evening a sledge stopped at the gate and the innkeeper Josel entered with a strange expression on his face. Slimak's conscience pricked him.

'The Lord be praised,' said Josel.

'In Eternity.'

A silence ensued.

'You have nothing to ask?' said the Jew.

'What should I have to ask?' Slimak looked into his eyes and involuntarily grew pale.

'To-morrow,' Josel said slowly, 'to-morrow Jendrek's trial is coming on for violence to Hermann.'

'They'll do nothing to him.'

'I expect he will have to sit in jail for a bit.'

'Then let him sit, it will cure him of fighting.'

Again silence fell. The Jew shook his head; Slimak's alarm grew.

He screwed up his courage at last and asked: 'What else?'

'What's the use of making many words?' said the Jew, holding up his hands, 'Maciek and the child have been frozen to death.'

Slimak sprang to his feet and looked for something to throw at the Jew, but staggered and held on to the wall. A hot wave rushed over him, his legs shook. Then he wondered why he should have been seized with fearlike this.

'Where...when?'

'In the ravines close to the railway line.'

'But when?'

'You know quite well that it was yesterday when you drove them out.' Slimak's anger was rising.

'As I live! the Jew is a liar! Frozen to death? What did he go to the ravines for? Are there no cottages in the world?'

The innkeeper shrugged his shoulders and got up.

'You can believe it or not, it's all the same to me, but I myself saw them being driven to the police-station.'

'Ah well! What harm can they do to me, because Maciek has been frozen?'

'Perhaps men can't do you harm, but, man, before God! or don't you believe in God?' the Jew asked from the other side of the door, his burning eyes fixed on Slimak.

The peasant stood still and listened to his heavy tread down to the gate and to the sound of his departing sledge. He shook himself, turned round and met Jendrek's eyes looking fixedly at him from the far corner.

'Why should I be to blame?' he muttered. Suddenly an annual sermon, preached by an old priest, flashed through his mind; he seemed to hear the peculiar cadence of his voice as he said: 'I was an hungered and ye gave me no meat.... I was a stranger and ye took me not in.'

'By God, the Jew is lying,' he exclaimed. These words seemed to break the spell; he felt sure Maciek and the child were alive, and he almost went out to call them in to supper.

'A low Jew, that Josel,' he said to his wife, while he covered her again with the sheepskin, when her shivering-fits returned. Nothing should induce him to believe that story.

Next day the village Soltys drove up with the summons for Jendrek.

'His trial does not come on till to-morrow,' he said, 'but as I was driving that way, I thought he might as well come with me.'

Jendrek grew pale and silently put on his new sukmana and sheepskin.

'What will they do to him?' his father asked peevishly.

'Eh! I dare say he'll get a few days, perhaps a week.'

Slimak slowly pulled a rouble out of a little packet.

'And...Soltys, have you heard what the accursed Jew has been saying about Maciek and the child being frozen to death?'

'How shouldn't I have heard?' said the Soltys, reluctantly; 'it's true.'

'Frozen...frozen?'

'Yes, of course. But,' he added, 'every one understands that it's not your fault. He didn't look after the horses and you discharged him. No one told him to go down into the ravines.

He must have been drunk. The poor wretch died through his own stupidity.'

Jendrek was ready to start, and embraced his parents' knees. Slimak gave him the rouble, tears came into his eyes; his mother, however, showed no sign of interest.

'Jagna,' Slimak said with concern, 'Jendrek is going to his trial.'

'What of that?' she answered with a delirious look.

'Are you very ill?'

'No, I'm only weak.'

She went into the alcove and Slimak remained alone. The longer he sat pondering the lower his head dropped on to his chest. Half dozing, he fancied he was sitting on a wide, grey plain, no bushes, no grass, not even stones were to be seen; there was nothing in front of him; but at his side there was something he dared not look at. It was Maciek with the child looking steadily at him.

No, he would not look, he need not look! He need see nothing of him, except a little bit of his sukmana...perhaps not even that!

The thought of Maciek was becoming an obsession. He got up and began to
busy himself with the dishes.

'What am I coming to? It doesn't do to give way!'

He pulled himself together, fed the cattle, ran to the river for water. It was so long since he had done these things that he felt rejuvenated, and but for the thought of Maciek he would have been almost cheerful.

His gloom returned with the dusk. It was the silence that tormented him most. Nothing stirred but the mice behind the boards. The voice was haunting him again: 'I was a stranger and ye took me not in.'

'It's all the fault of those scoundrel Swabians that everything is going wrong with me,' he muttered, and began to count his losses on the window-pane: 'Stasiek, that's one, the cow two, the horses four, because the thieves did that out of spite for the hog, Burek five, Jendrek six, Maciek and the child eight, and Magda had to leave, and my wife is ill with worry, that makes ten. Lord Christ...!'

Trembling seized him and he gripped his hair; he had never in his life felt fear like this, though he had looked death in the face more than once. He had suddenly caught a glimpse of the power the Germans were exercising, and it scared him. They had destroyed all his life's work, and yet you could not bring it home to them. They had lived like others, ploughed, prayed, taught their children; you could not say they were doing any wrong, and yet they had made his home desolate simply by being there. They had blasted what was near them as smoke from a kiln withers all green things.

Not until this moment had the thought ever come to him: 'I am too close to them! The gospodarstwos farther off do not suffer like this. What good is the land, if the people on it die?'

This new aspect was so horrible to him that he felt he must escape from it; he glanced at his wife, she was asleep. The cadence of the priest's voice began to haunt him again.

Steps were approaching through the yard. The peasant straightened himself. Could it be Jendrek? The door creaked. No, it was a strange hand that groped along the wall in the darkness. He drew back, and his head swam when the door opened and Zoska stood on the threshold.

For a moment both stood silent, then Zoska said:

'Be praised.'

She began rubbing her hands over the fire.

The idea of Maciek and the child and Zoska had become confused in Slimak's mind; he looked at her as if she were an apparition from the other world. 'Where do you come from?' His voice was choked.

'They sent me back to the parish and told me to look out for work. They said they wouldn't keep loafers.'

Seeing the food in the saucepan, she began to lick her lips like a dog.

'Pour out a basin of soup for yourself.'

She did as she was told.

'Don't you want a servant?' she asked presently.

'I don't know; my wife is ill.'

'There you are! It's quiet here. Where's Magda?'

'Left.'

'Jendrek?'

'Sent up for trial.'

'There you are! Stasiek?'

'Drowned last summer,' he whispered, fearful lest Maciek's and the little girl's turn should come next.

But she ate greedily like a wild animal, and asked nothing further.

'Does she know?' he thought.

Zoska had finished and struck her hand cheerfully on her knee. He took courage.

'Can I stop the night?'

Uneasiness seized him; any other guest would have been a blessing in his solitude, but Zoska.... If she did not know the truth, what ill wind had blown her here? And if she knew?...'

He reflected. In the intense silence suddenly the priest's voice started again: 'I was a stranger and ye took me not in.'

'All right, stop here, but you must sleep in this room.'

'Or in the barn?'

'No, here.'

He hardly knew what it was that he feared; there was a vague sense of misfortune in the air which was tormenting him.

The fire died down. Zoska lay down on the bench in her rags and Slimak went into the alcove. He sat on the bed, determined to be on the watch. He did not know that this strange state of mind is called 'nerves'. Yet a kind of relief had come in with Zoska; she had driven away the spectre of Maciek and the child. But an iron ring was beginning to press on his head. This was sleep, heavy sleep, the companion of great anguish. He dreamt that he was split in two; one part of him was
sitting by his sick wife, the other was Maciek, standing outside the window, where sunflowers bloomed in the summer. This new Maciek was unlike the old one, he was gloomy and vindictive.

'Don't believe,' said the strange guest, 'that I shall forgive you. It's not so much that I got frozen, that might happen to anyone the worse for drink, but you drove me away for no fault of mine after I had served you so long. And what harm had the child done to you? Don't turn away! Pass judgment on yourself for what you have done. God will not let these wrongs be done and keep silent.'

'What shall I say?' thought Slimak, bathed in perspiration. 'He is telling the truth, I am a scoundrel. He shall fix the punishment, perhaps he will get it over quickly.'

His wife moved and he opened his eyes, but closed them again. A rosy brightness filled the room, the frost glittered in flowers on the window panes. 'Daylight?' he thought.

No, it was not daylight, the rosy brightness trembled. A smell of burning was heavy in the room.

'Fire?'

He looked into the room; Zoska had disappeared.

'I knew it!' he exclaimed, and ran out into the yard.

His house was indeed on fire; the roof towards the highroad was alight, but owing to the thick layers of snow the flames spread but slowly; he could still have saved the house, but he did not even think of this.

'Get up, Jagna,' he cried, running back into the alcove, 'the house is on fire!'

'Leave me alone,' said the delirious woman, covering her head with the sheepskin. He seized her and, stumbling over the threshold, carried her into the shed, fetched her clothes and bedding, broke open the chest and took out his money; finally he threw everything he could lay hands on out of the window. Here was at least something tangible to fight. The whole roof was now ablaze; smoke and flames were coming into the room from the boarded ceiling. He was dragging the bench through the
brightly illuminated yard when he happened to look at the barn; he stood petrified. Flames were licking at it, and there stood Zoska shaking her clenched fist at him and shouting: 'That's my thanks to you, Slimak, for taking care of my child, now you shall die as she did!'

She flew out of the yard and up the hill; he could see her by the light of the fire, dancing and clapping her hands.

'Fire, fire!' she shouted.

Slimak reeled like a wild animal after the first shot. Then he slowly went towards the barn and sat down, not thinking of seeking help. This was the beginning of the divine punishment for the wrong he had done.

'We shall all die!' he murmured.

Both buildings were burning like pillars of fire, and in spite of the frost Slimak felt hot in the shed. Suddenly shouts and clattering came from the settlement; the Germans were coming to his assistance. Soon the yard was swarming with them, men, women and children with hand-fire-engines and buckets. They formed into groups, and at Fritz Hamer's command began to pull down the burning masses and to put out the fire. Laughing and emulating each other in daring, they went into the fire as into a dance; some of the most venturesome climbed up the walls of the burning buildings. Zoska approached once more from the side of the ravines.

'Never mind the Germans helping you, you will die all the same,' she cried.

'Who is that?' shouted the settlers, 'catch her!'

But Zoska was too quick for them.

'I suppose it was she who set fire to your house?' asked Fritz.

'No one else but she.'

Fritz was silent for a moment.

'It would be better for you to sell us the land.'

The peasant hung his head....

The barn could not be saved, but the walls of the cottage were still standing; some of the people were busy putting out the fire, others surrounded the sick woman.

'What are you going to do?' Fritz began again.

'We will live in the stable.'

The women whispered that they had better be taken to the settlement, but the men shook their heads, saying the woman might be infectious. Fritz inclined to this opinion and ordered her to be well wrapped up and taken into the stable.

'We will send you what you need,' he said.

'God reward you,' said Slimak, embracing his knees.

Fritz took Hermann aside.

'Drive full speed to Wolka,' he said, 'and fetch miller Knap; we may be able to settle this affair to-night.'

'It's high time we did,' replied the other, audibly, 'we shan't hold out till the spring unless we do.'

Fritz swore.

Nevertheless, he took leave benevolently. Bending over the sick woman he said: 'She is quite unconscious.'

But in a strangely decided voice she ejaculated: 'Ah! unconscious!'

He drew back in confusion. 'She is delirious,' he said.

At daybreak the Germans brought the promised help, but Slimak paced backwards and forwards among the ruins of his homestead, from which the smell of smouldering embers rose pungently. He looked at his household goods, tumbled into the yard. How many times had he sat on that bench and cut notches and crosses into it when a boy. That heap of smouldering ruins represented his storehouse and the year's crop. How small the cottage looked now that it was reduced to walls, and how large the chimney! He took out his money, hid it under a heap of dry manure in the stable and strolled about again. Up the hill he went, with a feeling that they were talking about him in the village and would come to his help. But there was no one to be seen on the boundless covering of snow; here and there smoke rose from the cottages.

His imagination, keener than usual, conjured up old pictures. He fancied he was harrowing on the hill with the two chestnuts who were whisking their tails under his nose; the sparrows were twittering, Stasiek gazing into the river; by the bridge his wife was beating the linen, he could hear the resounding smacks, while the squire's brother-in-law was wildly galloping up and down the valley. Jendrek and Magda were answering each other in snatches of songs....

Suddenly he was awakened from his dreams by the stench of his burnt cottage; he looked up, and everything he saw became abominable to him. The frozen river, into which his child would never gaze again; the empty, hideous homestead; he longed to escape from it all and go far away and forget Stasiek and Maciek and the whole accursed gospodarstwo. He could buy land more cheaply elsewhere with the money he would get from the Germans. What was the good of the land if it was ruining the
people on it?

He went into the stable and lay down near his wife, who was moaning deliriously, and soon fell asleep.

At noon old Hamer appeared, accompanied by a German woman who carried two bowls of hot soup. He stood over Slimak and poked him with his stick.

'Hey, get up!'

Slimak roused himself and looked about heavily; seeing the hot food he ate greedily. Hamer sat down in the doorway, smoking his pipe and watching Slimak; he nodded contentedly to himself.

'I've been down to the village to ask Gryb and the other gospodarze to come and help you, for that is a Christian duty....'

He waited for the peasant's thanks, but Slimak went on eating and did not look at him.

'I told them they ought to take you in; but they said, God was punishing you for the death of the labourer and the child and they didn't wish to interfere. They are no Christians.'

Slimak had finished eating, but he remained silent.

'Well, what are you going to do?'

Slimak wiped his mouth and said: 'I shall sell.' Hamer poked his pipe with deliberation.

'To whom?'

'To you.'

Hamer again busied himself with his pipe.

'All right! I am willing to buy, as you have fallen upon bad times. But I can only give you seventy roubles.'

'You were giving a hundred not long ago.'

'Why didn't you take it?'

'That's true, why didn't I take it? Everyone profits as he can.'

'Have you never tried to profit?'

'I have.'

'Then will you take it?'

'Why shouldn't I take it?'

'We will settle the matter at my house to-night.'

'The sooner the better.'

'Well, since it is so,' Hamer added after a while, 'I will give you seventy-five roubles, and you shan't be left to die here. You and your wife can come to the school; you can spend the winter with us and I will give you the same pay as my own farm-labourers.'

Slimak winced at the word 'farm-labourer', but he said nothing.

'And your gospodarze,' concluded Hamer, 'are brutes. They will do nothing for you.'

Before sunset a sledge conveyed the unconscious woman to the settlement. Slimak remained, recovered his money from under the manure, collected a few possessions and milked the cows.

The dumb animals looked reproachfully at him and seemed to ask: 'Are you sure you have done the best you could, gospodarz?'

'What am I to do?' he returned, 'the place is unlucky, it is bewitched. Perhaps the Germans can take the spell away, I can't.'

He felt as if his feet were being held to the ground, but he spat at it. 'Much I have to be thankful to you for! Barren land, far from everybody so that thieves may profit!' He would not look back.

On the way he met two German farm-labourers, who had come to spend the night in the stable; as he passed them, they laughed.

'Catch me spending the winter with you scoundrels! I'm off directly the wife is well and the boy out of jail.'

A black shadow detached itself from the gate when he reached the settlement, 'Is that you, schoolmaster?'

'Yes. So you have consented after all to sell your land?'

Slimak was silent.

'Perhaps it's the best thing you can do. If you can't make much of it yourself, at least you can save others.' He looked round and lowered his voice. 'But mind you bargain well, for you are doing them a good turn. Miller Knap will pay cash down as soon as the contract has been signed and give his daughter to Wilhelm. Otherwise Hirschgold will turn the Hamers out at midsummer and sell the land to Gryb. They have a heavy contract with the Jew.'

'What? Gryb would buy the settlement?'

'Indeed he would. He is anxious to settle his son too, and Josel has been sniffing round for a month past. So there's your chance, bargain well.'

'Why, damn it,' said Slimak, 'I would rather have a hundred Germans than that old Judas.'

A door creaked and the schoolmaster changed the conversation. 'Come this way, your wife is in the schoolroom.'

'Is that Slimak?' Fritz called out.

'It is I.'

'Don't stay long with your wife, she is being looked after, and we want you at daybreak; you must sleep in the kitchen.'

The noise of loud conversation and clinking of glasses came from the back of the house, but the large schoolroom was empty, and only lighted by a small lamp. His wife was lying on a plank bed; a pungent smell of vinegar pervaded the room. That smell took the heart out of Slimak; surely his wife must be very ill! He stood over her; her eye-lashes twitched and she looked steadily at him.

'Is it you, Josef?'

'Who else should it be?'

Her hands moved about restlessly on the sheepskin; she said distinctly: 'What are you doing, Josef, what are you doing?'

'You see I am standing here.'

'Ah yes, you are standing there...but what are you doing? I know everything, never fear!'

'Go away, gospodarz,' hurriedly cried the old woman, pushing him towards the door, 'she is getting excited, it isn't good for her.'

'Josef!' cried Slimakowa, 'come back! Josef, I must speak to you!' The peasant hesitated.

'You are doing no good,' whispered the schoolmaster, 'she is rambling, she may go to sleep when you are out of sight.'

He drew Slimak into the passage, and Fritz Hamer at once took him to the further room.

Miller Knap and old Hamer were sitting at a brightly lighted table behind their beer mugs, blowing clouds of smoke from their pipes. The miller had the appearance of a huge sack of flour as he sat there in his shirtsleeves, holding a full pot of beer in his hand and wiping the perspiration off his forehead. Gold studs glittered in his shirt.

'Well, you are going to let us have your land at last?' he shouted.

'I don't know,' said the peasant in a low voice, 'maybe I shall sell it.' The miller roared with laughter.

'Wilhelm,' he bellowed, as if Wilhelm, who was officiating at the beer-barrel on the bench, were half a mile off, 'pour out some beer for this man. Drink to my health and I'll drink to yours, although you never used to bring me your corn to grind. But why didn't you sell us your land before?'

'I don't know,' said the peasant, taking a long pull.

'Fill up his glass,' shouted the miller, 'I will tell you why; it's because you don't know your own mind. Determination is what you want. I've said to myself: I will have a mill at Wolka, and a mill at Wolka I have, although the Jews twice set fire to it. I said: My son shall be a doctor, and a doctor he will be. And now I've said: Hamer, your son must have a windmill, so he must have a windmill. Pour out another glass, Wilhelm, good beer...eh? my son-in-law brews it. What? no more beer? Then we'll go to bed.'

Fritz pushed Slimak into the kitchen, where one of the farm-hands was asleep already. He felt stupefied; whether it was with the beer or with Knap's noisy conversation, he could not tell. He sat down on his plank bed and felt cheerful. The noise of conversation in German reached him from the adjoining room; then the Hamers left the house. Miller Knap stamped about the room for a while; presently his thick voice repeated the Lord's prayer while he was pulling off his boots and throwing them into a corner: 'Amen amen,' he concluded, and flung himself heavily upon the bed; a few moments later noises as if he were being throttled and murdered proclaimed that he was asleep.

The moon was throwing a feeble light through the small squares of the window.

Between waking and sleeping Slimak continued to meditate: 'Why shouldn't I sell? It's better to buy fifteen acres of land elsewhere, than to stay and have Jasiek Gryb as a neighbour. The sooner I sell, the better.' He got up as if he wished to settle the matter at once, laughed quietly to himself and felt more and more intoxicated.

Then he saw a human shadow outlined against the window pane; someone was trying to look into the room. The peasant approached the window and became sober. He ran into the passage and pulled the door open with trembling hands. Frosty air fanned his face. His wife was standing outside, still trying to look through the window.

'Jagna, for God's sake, what are you doing here? Who dressed you?'

'I dressed myself, but I couldn't manage my boots, they are quite crooked. Come home,' she said, drawing him by the hand.

'Where, home? Are you so ill that you don't know our home is burnt down? Where will you go on a bitter night like this?'

Hamer's mastiffs were beginning to growl. Slimakowa hung on her husband's arm. 'Come home, come home,' she urged stubbornly, 'I will not die in a strange house, I am a gospodyni, I will not stay here with the Swabians. The priests would not even sprinkle holy water on my coffin.'

She pulled him and he went; the dogs went after them for a while snapping at their clothes; they made straight for the frozen river, so as to reach their own nest the sooner. On the riverbank they stopped for a moment, the tired woman was out of breath.

'You have let yourself be tempted by the Germans to sell them your land! You think I don't know. Perhaps you will say it is not true?' she cried, looking wildly into his eyes. He hung his head.

'You traitor, you son of a dog!' she burst out. 'Sell your land! You would sell the Lord Jesus to the Jews! Tired of being a gospodarz, are you? What is Jendrek to do? And is a gospodyni to die in a stranger's house?'

She drew him into the middle of the frozen river. 'Stand here, Judas,' she cried, seizing him by the hands. 'Will you sell your land? Listen! Sell it, and God will curse you and the boy. This ice shall break if you don't give up that devil's thought! I won't give you peace after death, you shall never sleep! When you close your eyes I will come and open them again...listen!' she cried in a paroxysm of rage, 'if you sell the land, you shall not swallow the holy sacrament, it shall turn to blood in your mouth.'

'Jesus!' whispered the man.

'...Where you tread, the grass shall be blasted! You shall throw a spell on everyone you look at, and misfortune shall befall them.'

'Jesus...Jesus!' he groaned, tearing himself from her and stopping his ears.

'Will you sell the land?' she cried, with her face close to his. He shook his head. 'Not if you have to draw your last breath lying on filthy litter?'

'Not though I had to draw...so help me God!'

The woman was staggering; her husband carried her to the other bank and reached the stable, where the two farm labourers were installed.

'Open the door!' He hammered until one of them appeared.

'Clear out! I am going to put my wife in here.'

They demurred and he kicked them both out. They went off, cursing and threatening him.

Slimak laid his wife down on the warm litter and strolled about the yard, thinking that he must presently fetch help for her and a doctor. Now and then he looked into the stable; she seemed to be sleeping quietly. Her great peacefulness began to strike him, his head was swimming, he heard noises in his ears; he knelt down and pulled her by the hand; she was dead, even cold.

'Now I don't care if I go to the devil,' he said, raked some straw into a corner and was asleep within a few minutes.

It was afternoon when he was at last awakened by old Sobieska.

'Get up, Slimak! your wife is dead! God's faith! dead as a stone.'

'How can I help it?' said the peasant, turning over and drawing his sheepskin over his head.

'But you must buy a coffin and notify the parish.'

'Let anyone who cares do that.'

'Who will do it? In the village they say it's God's punishment on you. And won't the Germans take it out of you! That fat man has quarrelled with them. Josel says you are now reaping the benefit of selling your fowls: he threatened me if I came here to see you. Get up now!'

'Let me be or I'll kick you!'

'You godless man, is your wife to lie there without Christian burial?' He advanced his boot so vehemently that the old woman ran screaming out along the highroad.

Slimak pushed to the door and lay down again. A hard peasant-stubbornness had seized him. He was certain that he was past  salvation. He neither accused himself nor regretted anything; he only wanted to be left to sleep eternally. Divine pity could have saved him, but he no longer believed in divine pity, and no human hand would do so much as give him a cup of water.

While the sound of the evening-bells floated through the air, and the women in the cottages whispered the Angelus, a bent figure approached the gospodarstwo, a sack on his back, a stick in his hand; the glory of the setting sun surrounded him. Such as these are the 'angels' which the Lord sends to people in the extremity of their sorrow.

It was Jonah Niedoperz, the oldest and poorest Jew in the neighbourhood; he traded in everything and never had any money to keep his large family, with whom he lived in a half-ruined cottage with broken windowpanes. Jonah was on his way to the village and was meditating deeply. Would he get a job there? would he live to have a dinner of pike on the Sabbath? would his little grandchildren ever have two shirts to their backs?

'Aj waj!' he muttered, 'and they even took the three roubles from me!' He had never forgotten that robbery in the autumn, for it was the largest sum he had ever possessed.

His glance fell on the burnt homestead. Good God! if such a thing should ever befall the cottage where his wife and daughters, sons-in-law and grandchildren lived! His emotion grew when he heard the cows lowing miserably. He approached the stable.

'Slimak! My good lady gospodyni!' he cried, tapping at the door. He was afraid to open it lest he should be suspected of prying into other people's business.

'Who is that?' asked Slimak.

'It's only I, old Jonah,' he said, and peeped in, 'but what's wrong with your honours?' he asked in astonishment.

'My wife is dead.' 'Dead? how dead? what do you mean by such a joke? Ajwaj! really-dead?' He looked attentively at her.

'Such a good gospodyni...what a misfortune, God defend us! And you are lying there and don't see about the funeral?'

'There may as well be two,' murmured the peasant.

'How two? are you ill?'

'No.'

The Jew shook his head and spat. 'It can't be like this; if you won't move I will go and give notice; tell me what to do.'

Slimak did not answer. The cows began to low again.

'What is the matter with the cows?' the Jew asked interestedly.

'I suppose they want water.'

'Then why don't you water them?'

No answer came. The Jew looked at Slimak and waited, then he tapped his forehead. 'Where is the pail, gospodarz?'

'Leave me alone.'

But Jonah did not give in. He found the pail, ran to the ice-hole and watered the cows; he had sympathy for cows, because he dreamt of possessing one himself one day, or at least a goat. Then he put the pail close to Slimak. He was exhausted with this unusually hard work.

'Well, gospodarz, what is to happen now?'

His pity touched Slimak, but failed to rouse him. He raised his head. 'If you should see Grochowski, tell him not to sell the land before Jendrek is of age.'

'But what am I to do now, when I get to the village?'

Slimak had relapsed into silence.

The Jew rested his chin in his hand and pondered for a while; at last he took his bundle and stick and went off. The miserable old man's pity was so strong that he forgot his own needs and only thought of saving the other. Indeed, he was unable to distinguish between himself and his fellow-creature, and he felt as if he himself were lying on the straw beside his dead wife and must rouse himself at all costs.

He went as fast as his old legs would carry him straight to Grochowski; by the time he arrived it was dark. He knocked, but received no answer, waited for a quarter of an hour and then walked round the house. Despairing at last of making himself heard, he was just going to depart, when Grochowski suddenly confronted him, as if the ground had produced him.

'What do you want, Jew?' asked the huge man, concealing some long object behind his back.

'What do I want?' quavered the frightened Jew, 'I have come straight from Slimak's. Do you know that his house is burnt down, his wife is dead, and he is lying beside her, out of his wits? He talks as if he had a filthy idea in his head, and he hasn't even watered the cows.'

'Listen, Jew,' said Grochowski fiercely, 'who told you to come here and lie to me? Is it those horse-stealers?'

'What horse-stealers? I've come straight from Slimak....'

'Lies! You won't draw me away from here, whatever you do.'

The Jew now perceived that it was a gun which Grochowski was hiding behind his back, and the sight so unnerved him that he nearly fell down. He fled at full speed along the highroad. Even now, however, he did not forget Slimak, but walked on towards the village to find the priest.

The priest had been in the parish for several years. He was middle-aged and extremely good-looking, and possessed the education and manners of a nobleman. He read more than any of his neighbours, hunted, was sociable, and kept bees. Everybody spoke well of him, the nobility because he was clever and fond of society, the Jews because he would not allow them to be oppressed, the settlers because he entertained their Pastors, the peasants because he renovated the church, conducted the services with much pomp, preached beautiful sermons, and gave to the poor. But in spite of this there was no intimate touch between him and his simple parishioners. When they thought of him, they felt that God was a great nobleman, benevolent and merciful, but not friends with the first comer. The priest felt this and regretted it. No peasant had ever invited him to a wedding or christening. At first he had tried to break through their shyness, and had entered into conversations with them; but these ended in embarrassment on both sides and he left it off. 'I cannot act the democrat,' he thought irritably.

Sometimes when he had been left to himself for several days owing to bad roads, he had pricks of conscience.

'I am a Pharisee,' he thought; 'I did not become a priest only to associate with the nobility, but to serve the humble.'

He would then lock himself in, pray for the apostolic spirit, vow to give away his spaniel and empty his cellar of wine.

But as a rule, just as the spirit of humility and renunciation was beginning to be awakened, Satan would send him a visitor.

'God have mercy! fate is against me,' he would mutter, get up from his knees, give orders for the kitchen and cellar, and sing jolly songs and drink like an Uhlan a quarter of an hour afterwards.

To-night, at the time when Jonah was drawing near to the Parsonage, he was getting ready for a party at a neighbouring landowner's to meet an engineer from Warsaw who would have the latest news and be entertained exceptionally well, for he was courting the landowner's daughter. The priest was longing feverishly for the moment of departure, for lie had been left to himself for several days. He could hardly bear the look of his snow-covered courtyard any more, having no diversion except watching a man chop wood, and hearing the cawing of rooks. He paced to and fro, thinking that another quarter of an hour must have gone, and was surprised to find it was only a few minutes since he had last looked at his watch. He ordered the samovar and lit his pipe. Then there was a knock at the door. Jonah came in, bowing to the ground.

'I am glad to see you,' said the priest, 'there are several things in my wardrobe that want mending.'

'God be praised for that, I haven't had work for a week past. And your honour's lady housekeeper tells me that the clock is broken as well.'

'What? you mend clocks too?'

'Why yes, I've even got the tools to do it with. I'm also an umbrella-mender and harness-maker, and I can glaze stewing-pans.'

'If that is so you might spend the winter here. When can you begin?'

'I'll sit down now and work through the night.'

'As you like. Ask them to give you some tea in the kitchen.'

'Begging your Reverence's pardon, may I ask that the sugar might be served separately?'

'Don't you like your tea sweet?'

'On the contrary, I like it very sweet. But I save the sugar for my grandchildren.'

The priest laughed at the Jew's astuteness. 'All right! have your tea with sugar and some for your grandchildren as well. Walenty!' he called out, 'bring me my fur coat.'

The Jew began bowing afresh. 'With an entreaty for your Reverence's pardon, I come from Slimak's.'

'The man whose house was burnt down?'

'Not that he asked me to come, your Reverence, he would not presume to do such a thing, but his wife is dead, they are both lying in the stable, and I am sure he has a bad thought in his head, for no one does so much as give him a cup of water.' The priest started.

'No one has visited him?'

'Begging your Reverence's pardon,' bowed the Jew, 'but they say in the village, God's anger has fallen on him, so he must die without help.' He looked into the priest's eyes as if Slimak's salvation depended on him. His Reverence knocked his pipe on the floor till it broke.

'Then I'll go into the kitchen,' said the Jew, and took up his bundle. The sledge-bells tinkled at the door, the valet stood ready with the fur coat.

'I shall be wanted for the betrothal,' reflected the priest, 'that man will last till to-morrow, and I can't bring the dead woman back to life. It's eight o'clock, if I go to the man first there will be nothing to go for afterwards. Give me my fur coat, Walenty.' He went into his bedroom: 'Are the horses ready? Is it a bright night?' 'Quite bright, your Reverence.'

'I cannot be the slave of all the people who are burnt down and all the women who die,' he agitatedly resumed his thoughts, 'it will be time enough to-morrow, and anyhow the man can't be worth much if no one will help him.'...His eyes fell on the crucifix. 'Divine wounds! Here I am hesitating between my amusement and comforting the stricken, and I am a priest and a citizen!

Get a basket,' he said in a changed voice to the astonished servant, 'put the rest of the dinner into it. I had better take the sacrament too,' he thought, after the surprised man had left the room, 'perhaps he is dying. God is giving me another spell of grace instead of condemning me eternally.'

He struck his breast and forgot that God does not count the number of amusements preferred and bottles emptied, but the greatness of the struggle in each human heart.

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Boleslaw Prus
(1847-1912)
(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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