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The Outpost 

by Boleslaw Prus (Aleksander Glowacki)

It was April. After their dinner Slimak's household dispersed to their different occupations. The gospodyni, tying a red handkerchief round her head and a white linen one round her neck, ran down to the river. Stasiek followed her, looking at the clouds and observing to himself that they were different every day. Magda busied herself washing up the dinner things, singing 'Oh, da, da', louder and louder in proportion as the mistress went farther away. Jendrek began pushing Magda about, pulling the dog's tail and whistling penetratingly; finally he ran out with a spade into the orchard. Slimak sat by the stove. He was a man of medium height with a broad chest and powerful shoulders. He had a calm face, short moustache, and thick straight hair falling abundantly over his forehead and on to his neck. A red-glass stud set in brass shone in his sacking shirt. He rested the elbow of his left arm on his right fist and smoked a pipe, but when his eyes closed and his head fell too far forward, he righted himself and rested his right elbow on his left fist. He puffed out the grey smoke and dozed alternately, spitting now and then into the middle of the room or shifting his hands. When the pipestem began to twitter like a young sparrow, he knocked the bowl a few times against the bench, emptied the ashes, and poked his finger down. Yawning, he got up and laid the pipe on the shelf.

He glanced under his brows at Magda and shrugged his shoulders. The liveliness of the girl who skipped about while she was washing her dishes, roused a contemptuous compassion in him. He knew well what it felt like to have no desire for skipping about, and how great the weight of a man's head, hands, and feet can be when he has been hard at work.

He put on his thick hobnailed boots and a stiff sukmana,[1] fastened a hard strap round his waist, and put on his high sheepskin cap. The heaviness in his limbs increased, and it came into his mind that it would be more suitable to be buried in a bundle of straw after a huge bowl of peeled barley-soup and another of cheese dumplings, than to go to work. But he put this thought aside, and went out slowly into the yard. In his snuff-coloured sukmana and black cap he looked like the
stem of a pine, burnt at the top.

The barn door was open, and by sheer perversity some bundles of straw were peeping out, luring Slimak to a doze. But he turned away his head and looked at one of the hills where he had sown oats that morning. He fancied the yellow grain in the furrows was looking frightened, as if trying in vain to hide from the sparrows that were picking it up.

'You will eat me up altogether,' Slimak muttered. With heavy steps he approached the shed, took out the two harrows, and led the chestnuts out of the stable; one was yawning and the other moved his lips, looking at Slimak and blinking his eyes, as if he thought: 'Would you not prefer to doze and not to drag us up the hill? Didn't we do enough work for you yesterday?' Slimak nodded, as if in answer, and drove off.

Seen from below, the thick-set man and the horses with heads hanging down, seemed to harrow the blue sky, moving a few hundred paces backward and forward. As often as they reached the edge of the sown field, a flight of sparrows rose up, twittering angrily, and flew over them like a cloud, then settled at the other end, shrieking continually in astonishment that earth should be poured on to such lovely grain.

'Silly fool! Silly fool! What a silly fool!' they cried.

'Bah!' murmured Slimak, cracking his whip at them, 'if I listened to you idlers, you and I would both starve under the fence. The beggars are playing the deuce here!'

Certainly Slimak got little encouragement in his labour. Not only that the sparrows noisily criticized his work, and the chestnuts scornfully whisked their tails under his nose, but the harrows also objected, and resisted at every little stone or clod of earth. The tired horses continually stumbled, and when Slimak cried 'Woa, my lads!' and they went on, the harrows again resisted and pulled them back. When the worried harrows moved on for a bit, stones got into the horses' feet or under his own shoes, or choked up, and even broke the teeth of the harrows. Even the ungrateful earth offered resistance.

'You are worse than a pig!' the man said angrily. 'If I took to scratching a pig's back with a horsecomb, it would lie down quietly and grunt with gratitude. But you are always bristling, as if I did you an injury!'

The sun took up the affronted earth's cause, and threw a great sheaf of light across the ashen-coloured field, where dark and yellow patches were visible.

'Look at that black patch,' said the sun, 'the hill was all black like that when your father sowed wheat on it. And now look at the yellow patch where the stony ground comes out from under the mould and will soon possess all your land.'

'But that is not my fault,' said Slimak.

'Not your fault?' whispered the earth; 'you yourself eat three times a day, but how often do you feed me? It is much if it is once in eight years. And then you think you give me a great deal, but a dog would starve on such fare. You know that you always grudge me the manure, shame on you!'

The penitent peasant hung his head.

'And you sleep twice in twenty-four hours unless your wife drives you to work, but how much rest do you give me? Once in ten years, and then your cattle trample upon me. So I am to be content with being harrowed? Just try giving no hay or litter to your cows, only scratch them and see whether they will give you milk. They will get ill, the slaughterer will have to be sent for, and even the Jew will give you nothing for their hides.'

'Oh dear, oh dear!' sighed the peasant, acknowledging that the earth was right. But no one pitied or comforted him--on the contrary! The west wind rose, and twining itself among the dry stalks on the field-paths, whistled:

'Look sharp, you'll catch it! I will bring such a deluge of rain that the remainder of the mould will be spurted on to the highroad or into the manor-fields. And though you should harrow with your own teeth, you shall get less and less comfort every year! I will make everything sterile!'

The wind was not threatening in vain. In Slimak's father's time ten korzy of sheaves an acre had been harvested here. Now he had to be thankful for seven, and what was going to happen in the future?

'That's a peasant's lot,' murmured Slimak, 'work, work, work, and from one difficulty you get into another. If only it could be otherwise, if only I could manage to have another cow and perhaps get that little meadow....'

His whip was pointed at the green field by the Bialka.

But the sparrows only twittered 'You fool!' and the earth groaned: 'You are starving me!'

He stopped the horses and looked around him to divert his thoughts.

Jendrek was digging between the cottage and the highroad, throwing stones at the birds now and then or singing out of tune:

 'God grant you, God grant you
 That I may not find you.
 For else, my fair maid,
 You should open your gate.'

And Magda answered from within:

 'Although I am poor
 And my mother was poor,
 I'll not at the gate
 Kiss you early or late.'

Slimak turned towards the river where his wife could be plainly seen in her white chemise and red skirt, bending over the water and beating the linen with a stick until the valley rang. Stasiek had already strayed farther towards the ravines. Sometimes he knelt down on the bank and gazed into the river, supported on his elbows. Slimak smiled.

'Peering again! What does he see down there?' he whispered.

Stasiek was his favourite, and struck him as an unusual child, who could see things that others did not see.

While Slimak cracked his whip and the horses went on, his thoughts were travelling in the direction of the desired field.

'How much land have I got?' he meditated, 'ten acres; if I had only sown six or seven every year and let the rest lie fallow, how could I have fed my hungry family? And the man, he eats as much as I do, though he is lame; and he has fifteen roubles wages besides. Magda eats less, but then she is lazy enough to make a dog howl. I'm lucky when they want me for work at the manor, or if a Jewess hires my horses to go for a drive, or my wife sells butter and eggs. And what is there saved when all is said and done? Perhaps fifty roubles in the whole year. When we were first married, a hundred did not astonish me. Manure the ground indeed! Let the squire take it into his head not to employ me, or not to sell me fodder, what then? I should have to drive the cattle to market and die of hunger.

'I am not as well off as Gryb or Lukasiak or Sarnecki. They live like gentlemen. One drives to church with his wife, the other wears a cap like a burgher, and the third would like to turn out the Wojt[2] and wear the chain himself. But I have to say to myself, 'Be poor on ten acres and go and bow and scrape to the bailiff at the manor that he may remember you. Well, let it be as it is! Better be master on a square yard of your own than a beggar on another's large estate.' A cloud of dust was rising on the high-road beyond the river. Some one was coming towards the bridge from the manor-house, riding in a peculiar fashion. The wind blew from behind, but the dust was so thick that sometimes it travelled backwards. Occasionally horse and rider showed above it, but the next moment it whirled round and round them again, as if the road
was raising a storm. Slimak shaded his eyes with his hand.

'What an odd way of riding? who can it be? not the squire, nor his coachman. He can't be a Catholic, not even a Jew; for although a Jew would bob up and down on the horse as he does, he would never make a horse go in that reckless way. It must be some crazy stranger.'

The rider had now come near enough for Slimak to see what he was like. He was slim and dressed in gentleman's clothes, consisting of a light suit and velvet jockey cap. He had eyeglasses on his nose and a cigar in his mouth, and he was carrying his riding whip under his arm, holding the reins in both hands between the horse's neck and his own beard, while he was shaking violently up and down; he hugged the saddle so tightly with his bow legs that his trousers were rucked up, showing his calves.

Anyone in the very least acquainted with equestrian matters could guess that this was the first time the rider had sat upon a horse, or that the horse had carried such a rider. At moments they seemed to be ambling along harmoniously, until the bobbing cavalier would lose his balance and tug at the reins; then the horse, which had a soft mouth, would turn sideways or stand still; the rider would then smack his lips, and if this had no effect he would fumble for the whip. The horse, guessing what was required, would start again, shaking him up and down until he looked like a rag doll badly sewn together.

All this did not upset his temper, for indeed, this was the first time the rider had realized the dearest wish of a lifetime, and he was enjoying himself to the full.

Sometimes the quiet but desperate horse would break into a gallop. Then the rider, keeping his balance by a miracle, would drop his bridle-fantasias and imagine himself a cavalry captain riding to the attack at the head of his squadron, until, unaccustomed to his rank of officer, he would perform some unexpected movement which made the horse suddenly stand still again, and would cause the gallant captain to hit his nose or his cigar against the neck of his steed.

He was, moreover, a democratic gentleman. When the horse took a fancy to trot towards the village instead of towards the bridge, a crowd of dogs and children ran after him with every sign of pleasure. Instead of annoyance a benevolent enjoyment would then take possession of him, for next to riding exercise he passionately loved the people, because they could manage horses. After a while, however, his role of cavalry captain would please him more, and after further performances with the reins, he succeeded in turning back towards the bridge. He evidently intended to ride through the length and breadth of the valley.

Slimak was still watching him.

'Eh, that must be the squire's brother-in-law, who was expected from Warsaw,' he said to himself, much amused; 'our squire chose a gracious little wife, and was not even very long about it; but he might have searched the length of the world for a brother-in-law like that! A bear would be a commoner sight in these parts than a man sitting a horse as he does! He looks as stupid as a cowherd--still, he is the squire's brother-in-law.'

While Slirnak was thus taking the measure of this friend of the people, the latter had reached the bridge; the noise of Slimakowa's stick had attracted his attention. He turned the horse towards the bridge-rail and craned his neck over the water; indeed, his slim figure and peaked jockey cap made him look uncommonly like a crane.

'What does he want now?' thought Slimak. The horseman was evidently asking Slimakowa a question, for she got up and raised her head. Slimak noticed for the first time that she was in the habit of tucking up her skirts very high, showing her bare knees.

'What the deuce does he want?' he repeated, objecting to the short skirt.

The cavalier rode off the bridge with no little difficulty and reined up beside the woman. Slimak was now watching breathlessly.

Suddenly the young man stretched out his hand towards Slimakowa's neck, but she raised her stick so threateningly that the scared horse started away at a gallop, and the rider was left clinging to his neck.

'Jagna! what are you doing?' shouted Slimak; 'that's the squire's brother-in-law, you fool!'

But the shout did not reach her, and the young man did not seem at all offended. He kissed his hand to Slimakowa and dug his heels into the horse, which threw up its head and started in the direction of the cottage at a sharp trot. But this time success did not attend the rider, his feet slipped out of the stirrups, and clutching his charger by the mane, he shouted: 'Stop, you devil!'

Jendrek heard the cry, clambered on to the gate, and seeing the strange performance, burst out laughing. The rider's jockey cap fell off. 'Pick up the cap, my boy,' the horseman called out in passing.

'Pick it up yourself,' laughed Jendrek, clapping his hands to excite the horse still more.

The father listened to the boy's answer speechless with astonishment, but he soon recovered himself.

'Jendrek, you young dog, give the gentleman his cap when he tells you!' he cried.

Jendrek took the jockey cap between two fingers, holding it in front of him and offering it to the rider when he had succeeded in stopping his horse.

'Thank you, thank you very much,' he said, no less amused than Jendrek himself.

'Jendrek, take off your cap to the gentleman at once,' called Slimak.

'Why should I take off my cap to everybody?' asked the lad saucily.

'Excellent, that's right!...' The young man seemed pleased. 'Wait, you shall have twenty kopeks for that; a free citizen should never humble himself before anybody.'

Slimak, by no means sharing the gentleman's democratic theories, advanced towards Jendrek with his cap in one hand and the whip in the other.

'Citizen!' cried the cavalier, 'I beg you not to beat the boy...do not crush his independent soul...do not...' he would have liked to have continued, but the horse, getting bored, started off again in the direction of the bridge. When he saw Slimakowa coming towards the cottage, he took off his dusty cap and called out:

'Madam, do not let him beat the boy!'

Jendrek had disappeared.

Slimak stood rooted to the spot, pondering upon this queer fish, who first was impertinent to his wife, then called her 'Madam', and himself 'Citizen', and praised Jendrek for his cheek.

He returned angrily to his horses.

'Woa, lads! what's the world coming to? A peasant's son won't take off his cap to a gentleman, and the gentleman praises him for it! He is the squire's brother-in-law--all the same, he must be a little wrong in his head. Soon there will be no gentlemen left, and then the peasants will have to die. Maybe when Jendrek grows up he will look after himself; he won't be a peasant, that's clear. Woa, lads!'

He imagined Jendrek in button-boots and a jockey cap, and he spat.

'Bah! so long as I am about, you won't dress like that, young dog! All the same I shall have to warm his latter end for him, or else he won't take his cap off to the squire next, and then I can go begging. It's the wife's fault, she is always spoiling him. There's nothing for it, I must give him a hiding.'

Again dust was rising on the road, this time in the direction of the plain. Slimak saw two forms, one tall, the other oblong; the oblong was walking behind the tall one and nodding its head.

'Who's sending a cow to market?' he thought, '... well, the boy must be thrashed...if only I could have another cow and that bit of field.'

He drove the horses down the hill towards the Bialka, where he caught sight of Stasiek, but could see nothing more of his farm or of the road. He was beginning to feel very tired; his feet seemed a heavy weight, but the weight of uncertainty was still greater, and he never got enough sleep. When his work was finished, he often had to drive off to the town.

'If I had another cow and that field,' he thought, 'I could sleep more.'

He had been meditating on this while harrowing over a fresh bit for half an hour, when he heard his wife calling from the hill:

'Josef, Josef!'

'What's up?'

'Do you know what has happened?' 'How should I know?'

'Is it a new tax?' anxiously crossed his mind.

'Magda's uncle has come, you know, that Grochowski....'

'If he wants to take the girl back--let him.'

'He has brought a cow and wants to sell her to Gryb for thirty-five paper roubles and a silver rouble for the halter. She is a lovely cow.'

'Let him sell her; what's that to do with me?'

'This much: that you are going to buy her,' said the woman firmly.

Slimak dropped his hand with the whip, bent his head forward, and looked at his wife. The proposal seemed monstrous.

'What's wrong with you?' he asked.

'Wrong with me?' She raised her voice. 'Can't I afford the cow? Gryb has bought his wife a new cart, and you grudge me the beasts? There are two cows in the shed; do you ever trouble about them? You wouldn't have a shirt to your back if it weren't for them.'

'Good Lord,' groaned the man, who was getting muddled by his wife's eloquence,' how am I to feed her? they won't sell me fodder from the manor.'

'Rent that field, and you will have fodder.'

'Fear God, Jagna! what are you saying? How am I to rent that field?'

'Go to the manor and ask the square; say you will pay up the rent in a year's time.'

'As God lives, the woman is mad! our beasts pull a little from that field now for nothing; I should be worse off, because I should have to pay both for the cow and for the field. I won't go to the squire.'

His wife came close up to him and looked into his eyes. 'You won't go?'

'I won't go.'

'Very well, then I will take what fodder there is and your horses may go to the devil; but I won't let that cow go, _I_ will buy her!'

'Then buy her.'

'Yes, I will buy her, but you have got to do the bargaining with Grochowski; I haven't the time, and I won't drink vodka with him.'

'Drink! bargain with him! you are mad about that cow!'

The quick-tempered woman shook her fist in his face.

'Josef, don't upset me when you yourself have nothing at all to propose. Listen! you are worrying every day that you haven't enough manure; you are always telling me that you want three beasts, and when the time comes, you won't buy them. The two cows you have cost you nothing and bring you in produce, the third would be clear gain. Listen.... I tell you, listen! Finish your work, then come indoors and bargain for the cow; if not, I'll have nothing more to do with you.'

She turned her back and went off.

The man put his hands to his head.

'God bless me, what a woman!' he groaned, 'how can I, poor devil, rent that field? She persists in having the cow, and makes a fuss, and it doesn't matter what you say, you may as well talk to a wall. Why was I ever born? everything is against me. Woa, lads!'

He fancied that the earth and the wind were laughing at him again:

'You'll pay the thirty-five paper roubles and the silver rouble for the halter! Week after week, month after month you have been putting by your money, and to-day you'll spend it all as if you were cracking a nut. You will swell Grochowski's pockets and your own pouch will be empty. You will wait in fear and uncertainty at the manor and bow to the bailiff when it pleases him to give you the receipt for your rent!...

'Perhaps the squire won't even let me have the field.'

'Don't talk nonsense!' twittered the sparrows; 'you know quite well that he'll let you have it.'

'Oh yes, he'll let me have it,' he retorted hotly, 'for my good money. I would rather bear a severe pain than waste money on such a foolish

The sun was low by the time Slimak had finished his last bit of harrowing near the highroad. At the moment when he stopped he heard the new cow low. Her voice pleased him and softened his heart a little.

'Three cows is more than two,' he thought, 'people will respect me more. But the money... ah well, it's all my own fault!'

He remembered how many times he had said that he must have another cow and that field, and had boasted to his wife that people had encouraged him to carve his own farm implements, because he was so clever at it.

She had listened patiently for two or three years; now at last she took things into her own hands and told him to buy the cow and rent the field at once. Merciful Jesu! what a hard woman! What would she drive him to next? He would really have to put up sheds and make farm carts!

Intelligent and even ingenious as Slimak was, he never dared to do anything fresh unless driven to it. He understood his farm work thoroughly, he could even mend the thrashing-machine at the manor-house, and he kept everything in his head, beginning with the rotation of crops on his land. Yet his mind lacked that fine thread which joins the project to the accomplishment. Instead of this the sense of obedience was very strongly developed in him. The squire, the priest, the Wojt, his wife were all sent from God. He used to say:

'A peasant is in the world to carry out orders.'

The sun was sinking behind the hill crest when he drove his horses on to the highroad, and he was pondering on how he would begin his bargaining with Grochowski when he heard a guttural voice behind him, 'Heh! heh!'

Two men were standing on the highroad, one was grey-headed and clean-shaven, and wore a German peaked cap, the other young and tall, with a beard and a Polish cap. A two-horse vehicle was drawn up a little farther back.

'Is that your field?' the bearded man asked in an unpleasant voice.

'Stop, Fritz,' the elder interrupted him.

'What am I to stop for?' the other said angrily.

'Stop! Is this your land, gospodarz?' the grey-haired man asked very politely.

'Of course it's mine, who else should it belong to?'

Stasiek came running up from the field at that moment and looked at the strangers with a mixture of distrust and admiration.

'And is that your field?' the bearded one repeated.

'Stop, Fritz! Is it your field, gospodarz?' the old man corrected him.

'It's not mine; it belongs to the manor.'

'And whose is the hill with the pine?'

'Stop, Fritz...'

'Oh well, if you are going to interrupt all the time, father....'

'Stop... is the hill yours, gospodarz?'

'It's mine; no one else's.'

'There you are, Fritz,' the old man said in German; 'that's the very place for Wilhelm's windmill.'

'The reason why Wilhelm has not yet put up a windmill is not that there are no hills, but that he is a lazy fellow.'

'Don't be disagreeable, Fritz! Then those fields beyond the highroad and the ravines are not yours, gospodarz?'

'How should they be, when they belong to the manor?'

'Oh yes,' the bearded one interrupted impatiently; 'everyone knows that he sits here in the manor-fields like a hole in a bridge. The devil take the whole business.'

'Wait, Fritz! Do the manor-fields surround you on all sides, gospodarz?'

'Of course.'

'Well, that will do,' said the younger man, drawing his father towards the carriage.

'God bless you, gospodarz,' said the elder, touching his cap.

'What a gossip you are, father! Wilhelm will never do anything; you may find him ever so many hills.'

'What do they want, daddy?' Stasiek asked suddenly.

'Ah, yes! true!'

Slimak was roused: 'Heh, sir!'

The older man looked round.

'What are you asking me all those questions for?'

'Because it pleases us to do so,' the younger man answered, pushing his father into the carriage.

'Farewell! we shall meet again!' cried the old man.

The carriage rolled away.

'What a crew they are on the highroad to-day, it's like a fair!' said Slimak.

'But who are those people, daddy?'

'Those? They must be Germans from Wolka, twelve miles from here.'

'Why did they ask so many questions about your land?'

'They are not the only ones to do that, child. This country pleases people so much that they come over here from a long way off; they come as far as the pine hill and then they go away again. That is all I know about them.'

He turned the horses homeward and was already forgetting the Germans. The cow and the field were engaging all his thoughts. Supposing he bought her! he would be able to manure the ground better, and he might even pay an old man to come to the cottage for the winter and teach his boys to read and write. What would the other peasants say to that? It would greatly improve his position; he would have a better place in church and at the inn, and with greater prosperity he would be able to take more rest.

Oh, for more rest! Slimak had never known hunger or cold, he had a good home and human affection, and he would have been quite happy if only his bones had not ached so much, and if he could have lain down or sat still to his heart's content.

Footnote 1:
Sukmana: a long linen coat, often elaborately embroidered.
Footnote 2:
The designations Wojt and Soltys are derived from the German Vogt and Sdiultheiss. Their functions in the townships or villages are of a different kind; in small villages there may be only one of these functionaries, the Soltys. He is the representative of the Government, collects rates and taxes and requisitions horses for the army. The Wojt is head of the village, and magistrate. All legal matters would be referred to him.
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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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