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The Outpost 

by Boleslaw Prus (Aleksander Glowacki)
CHAPTER IV

Slimakowa came to the barn early the next morning and called her husband. 'Are you going to be long idling there?'

'What's the matter?'

'It's time to go to the manor-house.'

'Have they sent for me?'

'Why should they send for you? You have got to go to them and see about the field.'

Slimak groaned, but came out on to the threshing-floor. His face was bloated, he looked ashamed of himself, and his hair was full of straw.

'Just look at him,' jeered his wife: 'his sukmana is dirty and wet, he hasn't taken off his boots all night, and he scowls like a brigand. You are more fit for a scarecrow in a flaxfield than for talking to the squire. Change your clothes and go.'

She returned to the cowshed, and a weight fell off Slimak's mind that the matter had ended there. He had expected to be jeered at till the afternoon. He came out into the yard and looked round. The sun was high, the ground had dried after the rain; the wind from the ravines brought the song of birds and a damp, cheerful smell; the fields had become green during the night. The sky looked as if it had been freshened up, and the cottage seemed whiter.

'A nice day,' he murmured, gaining courage, and went indoors to dress. He pulled the straw out of his hair and put on a clean shirt and new boots. He thought they did not look polished enough, so he took a piece of tallow and rubbed it well first over his hair, then over his boots. Then he stood in front of the glass and smiled contentedly at the brilliance he rejected from head to foot.

His wife came in at that moment and looked disdainfully at him.

'What have you been doing to your head? You stink of tallow miles off. You'd better comb your hair.'

Slimak, silently acknowledging the justice of the remark, took a thick comb from behind the looking-glass and smoothed his hair till it looked like polished glass, then he applied the soap to his neck so energetically that his fingers left large, dark streaks.

'Where is Grochowski?' he asked in a more cheerful voice, for the cold water had added to his good temper.

'He has gone.'

'What about the money?'

'I paid him, but he wouldn't take the thirty-three roubles; he said that Jesus Christ had lived in this world for thirty-three years, so it would not be right for him to take as much as that for the cow.'

'Very proper,' Slimak agreed, wishing to impress her with his theological knowledge, but she turned to the stove and took off a pot of hot barley soup. Offering it to him with an air of indifference: 'Don't talk so much,' she said. 'Put something hot inside you and go to the manor-house. But just try and bargain as you did with the Soltys and I shall have something to say to you.'

He sat humbly, eating his soup, and his wife took some money from the chest. 'Take these ten roubles,' she said, 'give them to the squire himself and promise to bring the rest to-morrow. But mind what he asks for the field, and kiss his hands, and embrace his and the lady's feet so that he may let you off at least three roubles. Will you remember?'

'Why shouldn't I remember?'

He was obviously repeating his wife's admonitions, for he suddenly stopped eating and tapped the table rhythmically with the spoon.

'Well, then, don't sit there and think, but put on your sukmana and go. And take the boys with you.'

'What for?'

'What for? They are to support you when you ask the squire, and Jendrek will tell me how you have bargained. Now do you know what for?'

'Women are a pest!' growled Slimak, when she had unfolded her carefully laid plans. 'Curse her, how she lords it over me! You can see that her father was a bailiff.'

He struggled into his sukmana, which was brand new and beautifully embroidered at the collar and pockets with coloured thread; put on a broad leather belt, tied the ten roubles up in a rag and slipped them into his sukmana. The children had long been ready, and at last they started.

They had no sooner gone than loneliness began to fill Slimakowa's heart. She went outside the gate and watched them; her husband, with his hands in his pockets, was strolling along the road, Jendrek on his right and Stasiek on his left. Presently Jendrek boxed Stasiek's ears and as a result he was walking on the left and Stasiek on the right. Then Slimak boxed both their ears, after which they were both walking on the left, Jendrek in the ditch, so that he could threaten his
brother with his fist.

'Bless them, they always find some nice amusement for themselves,' she whispered, smiling, and went back to put on the dinner.

Having settled the misunderstanding between his sons, Slimak sang softly to himself:

 'Your love is no courtier,
 my own heart's desire,
 He's riding a pony on his way to the squire.'

Then in a more melancholy strain:

 'Oh dearie, dearie me
 This is great misery,
 What shall I do?...'

He sighed, and felt that no song could adequately express his anxiety. Would the squire let him have the field? They were just passing it; he was almost afraid to look at it, so beautiful and unattainable did it seem. All the fines he had had to pay for his cattle, all the squire's threats and admonitions came into his mind. It struck him that if the field lay farther off and produced sand instead of good grass, he would have a better chance.

'Eh, I don't care!' he cried, throwing up his head with an air of indifference; 'they've often asked me to take it.'

That was so, but it had been at times when he had not wanted it; now that he did, they would bargain hard, or not let him have it at all. Who could tell why that should be so? It was a law of nature that landlords and peasants were always at cross purposes.

He remembered how often he had charged too much for work done, or how often the gospodarze had refused to come to terms with the squire about rights of grazing or wood-gathering in the forests, and he felt contrite. Good Lord! how beautifully the squire had spoken to them: 'Let us help each other and live peaceably like good neighbours.'

And they had answered: 'What's the good of being neighbours? A nobleman is a nobleman and a peasant is a peasant. We should prefer peasants for neighbours and you would prefer noblemen.' Then the squire had cited: 'Remember, the runaway goat came back to the cart and said, "Put me in." But I shall say you nay.' And Gryb, in the name of them all, had answered: 'The goat will come, your honour, when you throw your forests open.'

The squire had said nothing, but his trembling moustaches had warned them that he would not forget that answer.

'I always told Gryb not to talk with a long tongue,' Slimak sighed. 'Now it is I who will have to suffer for his impudence.'

A new idea came into his head. Why should he not pay for the field in work instead of cash? The Squire might accept it, for he wasn't half a bad gentleman. It was true, the other gospodarze looked down upon him, because he was the only one who hired himself out for work; but whatever happened, the squire would always be the squire, and they the gospodarze. He hummed again, but under his breath, so that the boys should not hear him:

 'The cuckoo cuckooed in the forest,
 Say the neighbours, I am the dullest.'

Suddenly he turned upon Stasiek, and wanted to know why he was dragging along as if he were being taken to jail, and didn't talk.

'I...I am wondering why we are going to the manor?'

'Don't you want to go?'

'No; I am afraid.'

'What is there to be afraid of?' snapped Slimak, but he himself was shivering.

'You see, my boy,' he continued, more kindly, 'we have bought the new cow from the Soltys and we shall want more hay, so I am going to ask the squire to let me rent the field.'

'I see....But, daddy, I am always wondering what the grass thinks when the cows chew it up.'

'What should it think? It doesn't think at all.'

'But, daddy, why shouldn't it think? When people are standing round the church in a crowd, they look like grass from a distance, all red and yellow, like flowers in a field. If some horrible cow came and lapped them up with her tongue, wouldn't they be able to think?'

'People would scream, but the grass says nothing.'

'It does say something! A dry stick cracks when you tread on it, and a fresh branch cries and clings to the tree when you tear it off, and the grass squeaks and holds on with its feet,...and...'

'Oh! you are always saying queer things,' interrupted his father; 'and you, Jendrek, are you glad that we are going to the manor-house?'

'Is it I who is going or you?' said Jendrek, shrugging his shoulders. 'I shouldn't go.'

'Well, what would you do?'

'I should take the hay and stack it in the yard; then let them come!'

'You would dare to cut the squire's hay?'

'How is it his? Has he sown the grass? or is the field near his house?'

'Don't you see, silly, that the meadow is his just as well as his other fields?'

'They are his, so long as no one takes them. Our land and our house were his once, now they are yours. Why should he be better off than we are? He does nothing, yet he has enough land for a hundred peasants.'

'He has it because he has it, because he is a gentleman.'

'Pooh! If you wore a coat, and your trousers outside your boots, you would be a gentleman; but for all that you wouldn't have the land.'

'You are stupid,' said Slimak, getting angry.

'I know I am stupid, that is because I can't read or write, but Jasiek Gryb can, and therefore he is clever, and he says there must be equality, and there will be when the peasants have taken the land from the nobility.'

'Jasiek had better leave off taking money from his father's chest
before he disposes of other people's property! He might give mine to
Maciek and take the squire's for himself, but he would never give his
own away. Let it be as God has ordered.'

'Did God give the land to the squire?'

'God has ordered that there should not be equality in the world. A pine is tall, a hazel is low, the grass is still lower. Look at sensible dogs. When a pail of dish-water is brought out to them, the strongest drinks first, and the others stand by and lick their lips, although they know that he will take the best part; then they all take their turn. If they start quarrelling, they upset the pail and the strong get the better of the weak.

If people were to say to each other: Disgorge what you have swallowed, the strong would drive off the weak and leave them to starve.'

'But if God has given the land to the squire, how can they begin to distribute it to the people now?'

'They distribute it so that every one should get what is right for him, not that he should take what he likes.'

His son's amazing views added a new worry to Slimak's mind.

'The rascal! listening to people of that sort! he'll never make a peasant; it's a mercy he hasn't stolen yet.'

They were nearing the drive to the manor-house, and Slimak was walking more and more slowly; Stasiek looked more and more frightened, Jendrek alone kept his saucy air.

Through the dark branches of old lime-trees the roof and chimneys of the manor became visible. Suddenly two shots rang out.

'They are shooting!' cried Jendrek excitedly, and ran forward. Stasiek caught hold of his father's pocket. Slimak called Jendrek, who returned sulkily. They were now on the terrace, where the manor-fields stretched on either side. Lower down lay the village, still lower the field by the river, in front of them was the manor, with the outbuildings, enclosed by a railing.

'There! that's the manor-house,' said Slimak to Stasiek. 'Isn't it beautiful?'

'Which one is it?'

'Why! the one with pillars in front.'

Another shot rang out, and they saw a man in fanciful sportsman's dress.

'The horseman of yesterday,' cried Jendrek.

'Ah, that freak!' said Slimak, scrutinizing him with his head on one side; 'he'll bring me bad luck about the field.'

'He has a splendid gun,' cried Jendrek; 'but what is he shooting? There's nothing but sparrows here.'

'Perhaps he is shooting at us?' suggested Stasiek timidly.

'Why should he be shooting at us?' his father reassured him; 'shooting at people isn't allowed. It's true there is no knowing what a lunatic might do.'

The sportsman approached, loading his gun; the tattered remains of some sparrows hung from his bag.

'The Lord be praised,' said Slimak, taking off his cap.

'How do you do, citizen?' replied the sportsman, touching his jockey cap.

'What a lovely gun!' sighed Jendrek.

'Do you like it? Eh, wasn't it you who picked up my cap the other day? I am in your debt; here you are.' He handed Jendrek a twenty-kopek piece. 'Is that your father? Citizen, if you want to be friends with me, do not bow so low, and cover your head. It is time that these survivals of servitude should be forgotten; they can only do us both harm. Cover yourself, I beg you.'

Slimak tried to do as he was told, but his hand refused obedience.

'I feel awkward, sir, standing before you with my cap on,' he said.

'Oh, hang hereditary social differences!' exclaimed the young man, snatching the cap from Slimak's hands and putting it on his head.

'Hang it all!' thought the peasant, unable to follow the democrat's intentions.

'What are you going to the manor for?' asked the latter. 'Have you come on business with my brother-in-law?'

'We want to beg a favour of the squire'--Slimak refrained with difficulty from bowing again--'that he should let us rent the field close to my property.'

'What for?'

'We've bought a new cow.'

'How much cattle have you?'

'The Lord Jesus possesses five tails in my gospodarstwo, two horses and three cows, not counting the pigs.'

'And have you much land?'

'I wish to God I had, but I have only ten acres, and those are growing more sterile every year.'

'That's because you don't understand agriculture. Ten acres is a large property; in other countries several families live comfortably on that; here it is not enough for one. But what can you expect if you sow nothing but rye?'

'What else should I sow, sir? Wheat doesn't do very well.'

'Vegetables, my friend, that does the trick! The market gardeners near Warsaw pay thirty or forty roubles an acre rent and do excellently well.'

Slimak hung his head. He was much perturbed, for he had arrived at the conclusion that the squire would not let him have the field, because he had so much land already, or that he would ask him thirty or forty roubles' rent. What other object could the young gentleman possibly have for saying, such strange things?

They were approaching the entrance to the garden.

'I see my sister is in the garden; my brother-in-law is sure to be about too. I will go and tell him of your business.'

Slimak bowed low, but inwardly he thought: 'May the pestilence take him! He is impertinent to my wife, stirs up the boy, and puts my cap on my head; but he wants to squeeze money out of me, all the same. I knew he would bring me bad luck.'

Sounds of an American organ which the squire was playing came from the house.

'Daddy, daddy, they are playing!' cried Stasiek in great excitement; he was flushed, and trembled with emotion, even Jendrek was affected. Slimak took off his cap and said a prayer for deliverance from the evil spell of the young gentleman.

When the organ stopped, they watched this same young gentleman talking to his sister in the garden.

'Look at the lady, dad,' said Jendrek; 'she is just like a horsefly, yellow with black spots, and thin in the waist and fat at the end.'

The democrat was putting Slimak's case before his sister, and complained of the signs of servility with which he met at every turn. He said they spoilt his temper.

'But what can I do?' said the lady.

'Go up to them and give them courage.'

'I like that!' she said. 'I arranged a treat for our farm-labourers' children to encourage them, and next day they plundered my peach trees. Go to them? I've done that too. I once went into a cottage where a child was ill, and my clothes smelt so strongly that I had to give them to my maid. No, thank you!'

'All the same, I beg you to do something for these people.'

Their conversation had been in French while they were approaching the railings.

'Oh, it's Slimak.' The lady raised her glasses. 'Well, my good man, my brother wants me to do something for you. Have you got a daughter?'

'I haven't, my lady,' said Slimak, kissing the hem of her dress.

'That's a pity, I might have taught her to do beadwork. Perhaps I could teach the boys to read?'

'They are wanted at home, my lady; the elder one is useful already, and the younger one looks after the pigs in the fields.'

'Do something for them yourself,' she said to her brother in French.

'What are they plotting against me?' thought Slimak.

The squire now came out and joined the group. Slimak began bowing again, Stasiek's eyes filled with tears, even Jendrek lost his self-assurance. The conversation reverted into French, and the democrat warmly supported Slimak's cause.

'All right, I'll let him have the field,' said the squire; 'then there will be an end to the trespassing; besides, he is the most honest man in the village.'

When Slimak's suspense had become so acute that he had thoughts of returning home without having settled the business, the squire said:

'So you want me to let you have the field by the river?'

'If you will be so kind, sir.'

'And if you will kindly take off three roubles,'

Jendrek added quickly. Slimak's blood ran cold; the squire exchanged glances with his wife.

'What does that mean?' he asked. 'From what am I to take off three roubles?'

Involuntarily Slimak's hand reached for his belt, but he recollected himself; he made up his mind in despair to tell the truth.

'If you please, sir, don't take any notice of that puppy; my wife has been at me for not bargaining well, and she told me to get you to take three roubles off the rent, and now this young scoundrel puts me to
shame.'

'Mother told me to look after you.'

Slimak became absolutely tongue-tied, and the party on the other side of the railing were convulsed with laughter.

'Look,' said the squire in French, 'that is the peasant all over. He won't allow you to speak a word to his wife, but he can't do anything without her, and doesn't understand any business whatsoever without her explanations.'

'Lovely!' laughed his wife, 'now, if you did as I tell you, we should have left this dull place long ago and gone to Warsaw.'

'Don't make the peasant out to be an idiot,' remonstrated his brother-in-law.

'No need for me to do that; he _is_ an idiot. Our peasants are all muscle and stomach; they leave reason and energy to their wives. Slimak is one of the most intelligent, yet I will bet you anything that I can immediately give you a proof of his being a donkey. Josef,' he said, turning to Slimak, 'your wife told you to drive a good bargain?'

'Certainly, sir, what is true is true.'

'Do you know what Lukasiak pays me yearly?'

'They say ten roubles.'

'Then you ought to pay twenty roubles for the two acres.'

'If you will be lenient, sir,' began Slimak.

'... and let me off three roubles,' completed the squire. Slimak looked confused.

'Very good, I will let you off three roubles; you shall pay me seventeen roubles yearly. Are you satisfied!'

Slimak bowed to the ground and thought: 'What is he up to? He is not bargaining!'

'Now, Slimak,' continued the squire, 'I will make you another proposal. Do you know what Gryb paid me for the two acres he bought?'

'Seventy roubles.'

'Just so, and he paid for the surveyor and the lawyer. I will sell you those two acres for sixty roubles and let you off all expenses, so you would gain a clear twenty roubles against Gryb's bargain, But I make one condition, you must decide at once and without consulting your wife; to-morrow my conditions wouldn't be the same.'

Slimak's eyes blazed; he fancied he saw quite clearly now that there was a conspiracy against him.

'That's not a handsome thing to offer, sir,' he said, with a forced smile; 'you yourself consult with the lady and the young gentleman.' 'There you are! Isn't he a finished idiot?'

His brother-in-law tapped Slimak on the shoulder. 'Agree to it, my friend; you'll have the best of the bargain. Of course he agrees,' he said, turning to the squire.

'Well, Josef, will you buy it? Do you agree to my conditions?'

'I'm not such a fool,' thought Slimak, and aloud: 'It wouldn't be fair to buy it without my wife.'

'Very well, I'll let it to you. Give me your earnest-money and come for the receipt to-morrow. There you have the peasant, my democrat!'

Slimak paid the ten roubles and glared at the retreating party.

'Ah! you'd like to cheat a peasant, but he has got too much sense! It's true, then, what Grochowski said about the land-distribution. Sixty roubles for a field worth seventy, indeed!'

All the same he could not quite get rid of the thought that it might have been a straightforward offer. He felt hot all over and wanted to shout or run after the squire. At that moment the young man hastily turned back.

'Buy that field,' he said, quite out of breath; 'my brother-in-law would still consent if you asked him.'

In an instant Slimak's distrust returned.

'No, sir; it wouldn't be fair.'

'Cattle!' murmured the democrat, and turned his back. The bargain had disappeared.

'Let's go home, boys,' and under his breath: 'Damn the aristocracy!' When they were nearing their home, the boys ran on ahead, for they were hungry.

'What is this Jendrek tells me? They wanted to sell you the land for sixty roubles?'

'That is so,' he replied, rather frightened; 'they are afraid of the new land-distributions. They are clever too! They knew all about my business beforehand, and the squire had set his brother-in-law on to me.'

'What! that fellow who spoke to me by the river?'

'That same fool. He gave Jendrek twenty kopeks and put my cap on my head, and he told me ten acres was a fortune.'

'A fortune? His brother-in-law has a thousand and says he hasn't enough! You did quite right not to buy the field; there is something shady about that business.'

But his wife's satisfaction did not completely reassure Slimak; he was wretchedly in doubt. His dinner gave him no pleasure, and he strolled about the house without knowing what to do. When his irritation had reached its climax, a happy thought struck him.

'Come here, Jendrek,' he said, unbuckling his belt.

'Oh, daddy, don't,' wailed the boy, although he had been prepared for the last two hours.

'You won't escape it this time; lie down on the bench. You've been laughing at the young gentleman and even making fun of the squire.'

Stasiek, in tears, embraced his father's knees, Magda ran out of the room, Jendrek howled.

'I tell you, lie down! I'll teach you to run about with that scoundrel of a Jasiek!'

At that moment Slimakowa tapped at the window. 'Josef, come quick, something has happened to the new cow, she's staggering.'

Slimak let go of Jendrek and ran to the cowshed. The three cows were standing quietly chewing the cud.

'It has passed off,' said the woman; 'but I tell you a minute ago she was staggering worse than you did yesterday.'

He examined the cow carefully, but could find nothing wrong with her.

Jendrek had meanwhile slipped away, his father's temper had cooled, and the matter ended as usual on these occasions.

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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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