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The Outpost 

by Boleslaw Prus (Aleksander Glowacki)
CHAPTER V

It was the height of summer. The squire and his wife had gone away, and the villagers had forgotten all about them. New wool had begun to grow on the shorn sheep.

The sun was so hot that the clouds fled from the sky into the woods, and the ground protected itself with what it could find; with dust on the highroads, grass in the meadows, and heavy crops in the fields.

But human beings had to toil their hardest at this time. At the manor they were cutting clover and hoeing turnips; in the cottages the women were piling up the potatoes, while the old women were gathering mallows for cooling drinks and lime-blossoms against the ague. The priest spent all his days tracking and taking swarms of bees; Josel, the innkeeper,
was making vinegar. The woods resounded with the voices of children picking berries.

The corn was getting ripe, and Slimak began to cut the rye the day after the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. He was in a hurry to get the work done in two or three days, lest the corn should drop out in the great heat, and also because he wanted to help with the harvesting at the manor.

Usually he, Maciek, and Jendrek worked together, alternately cutting and binding the sheaves. Slimakowa and Magda helped in the early morning and in the afternoon.

On the first day, while the five were working together, and had reached the top of the hill, Magda noticed some men showing against the dark background of the wood, and drew Slimakowa's attention to them. They all stopped work and looked.

'They must be peasants,' Maciek said; 'they are wearing white smocks.'

'They do not walk like peasants,' said Slimakowa.

'But they are wearing boots up to their knees,' said Slimak.

'Look! they are carrying poles,' Jendrek cried; 'and they are dragging
a rope after them.'

'Ah, they must be surveyors. What can they be after?' reflected Slimak.

'Surely, they are taking a fresh survey; now, Josef, aren't you glad you did not buy that land?' asked his wife. They took up their work again, but did not get on very fast, for they could not resist throwing sidelong glances at the approaching men. It was now quite plain that they were not peasants, for they wore white coats and had black ribbons on their hats. Slimak's attention became so absorbed that he lagged behind, in the place which Magda usually occupied, instead of being at
the head of the party. At last he cried:

'Jendrek, stop cutting; run and find out what they are doing, and if they are really measuring for a new land-distribution.'

Jendrek was off in a moment, and had soon reached the men. He forgot to come back. The little party watched him talk to the men for a few moments, and then becoming busy with the poles.

'I say!' cried Slimakowa, 'he is quite one of the party! Just look, how he is running along with the line, as if he had never done anything else in his life. He has never seen a book except in the Jew's shop window, and yet he can run better than any of them. I wish I had told him to put on his boots; they will never take him for the son of a gospodarz.'

She watched Jendrek with great pride until the party disappeared behind the line of the hill.

'Something will come of this,' said Slimak, 'either good or bad.'

'Why should it be bad?' asked his wife; 'they may add to our land; what do you think, Maciek?'

The farm labourer looked embarrassed when he was asked for his opinion, and pondered until the perspiration flowed from his head.

'Why should it be good?' he said at last. 'When I was working for the squire at Krzeszowie, and he went bankrupt, just such men as these came and measured the land, and soon afterwards we had to pay a new tax. No good ever comes of anything new.'

Jendrek returned towards sunset, quite out of breath. He called out to his mother that the gentlemen wanted some milk, and had given him twenty kopeks.

'Give them to your mother at once,' said Slimak; 'they are not for you, but for the milk.'

Jendrek was almost in tears. 'Why should I give up my money? They say they will pay for everything they have, and even want to buy butter and fowls.'

'Are they traders?'

'Oh no, they are great gentlemen, and live in a tent and keep a cook.'

'Gipsies, I dare say!'

Slimakowa had run off at top speed, and now the men appeared, perspiring, sunburnt, and dusty; nevertheless, they impressed Slimak and Maciek so much with their grand manner that they took off their caps.

'Which of you is the gospodarz?'

'I am.'

'How long have you lived here?'

'From my childhood.'

'And have you ever seen the river in flood?'

'I should think I had!'

'Do you remember how high the water rises?'

'Sometimes it overflows on to that meadow deep enough to drown a man.'

'Are you quite sure of that?'

'Everybody knows that. Those gaps in the hill have been scooped out by the water.'

'The bridge will have to be sixty feet high.'

'Certainly,' said the elder of the two men. 'Can you let us have some milk, gospodarz?'

'My wife is getting it ready, if it pleases the gentlemen to come.'

The whole party turned towards the cottage, for the drinking of milk by such distinguished gentlemen was an important event; it was decided to stop harvesting for the day.

Chairs and the cherrywood table had been placed in front of the cottage. A rye loaf, butter, white cheese with caraway seeds, and a bowl of buttermilk were in readiness.

'Well,' said the men, looking at each other in surprise, 'a nobleman could not have received us better.'

They ate heartily, praised everything, and finally asked Slimakowa what they owed her.

'May it be to the gentlemen's health!'

'But we cannot fleece you like this, gospodyni.'

'We don't take money for hospitality. Besides, you have already given my boy as much as if he had been harvesting a whole day.'

'There!' whispered the younger man to the elder, 'isn't that like Polish peasants?'

To Slimak they said: 'After such a reception we will promise to build
the station quite near to you.'

'I don't know what you mean?'

'We are going to build a railway.'

Slimak scratched his head.

'What makes you so doubtful?' asked the men.

'I'm thinking that this will turn out badly for us,' Slimak replied; 'I shan't earn anything by driving.'

The men laughed. 'Don't be afraid, my friend, it will be a very good thing for everybody, especially for you, as you will be near the station. And first of all you will sell us your produce and drive us. Let us begin at once, what do you want for your fowls?'

'I leave it to you, sir.'

'Twenty-five kopeks, then.'

Slimakowa looked at her husband. This was double the amount they had usually taken. 'You can have them, sir,' she cried.

'That scoundrel of a Jew charged us fifty,' murmured the younger man.

They agreed to buy butter, cheese, crayfish, cucumber, and bread; the younger man expressing surprise at the cheapness of everything, and the elder boasting that he always knew how to drive a good bargain. When they left, they paid Slimakowa sixteen paper roubles and half a silver rouble, asking her if she was sure that she was not cheating herself.

'God forbid,' she replied. 'I wish I could sell every day at that price.'

'You will, when we have built the railway.'

'May God bless you!' She made the sign of the cross over them, the farm labourer knelt down, and Slimak took off his cap. They all accompanied their guests as far as the ravines.

When they returned, Slimak set everyone to work in feverish haste.

'Jagna, get the butter ready; Maciek and Jendrek, go to the river for the crayfish; Magda, take three score of the finest cucumbers, and throw in an extra ten. Jesus Mary! Have we ever done business like this! You will have to buy yourself a new silk kerchief, and a new shirt for Jendrek.'

'Our luck has come,' said Slimakowa, 'and I must certainly buy a silk kerchief, or else no one in the village will believe that we have made so much money.'

'I don't quite like it that the new carriages will go without horses,' said Slimak; 'but that can't be helped.'

When they took their produce to the engineers' encampment, they received fresh orders, for there were more than a dozen men, who made him their general purveyor. Slimak went round to the neighbouring cottages and bought what he needed, making a penny profit on every penny he spent, while his customers praised the cheapness of the produce. After a week the party moved further off, and Slimak found himself in possession of twenty-five roubles that seemed to have fallen from the sky, not counting what he had earned for the hire of his horses and cart, and payment for the days of labour he had lost. But
somehow the money made him feel ashamed.

'Do you know, Jagna,' he said, 'perhaps we ought to go after the gentlemen and give them back their money.'

'Oh nonsense!' cried the woman, 'trading is always like that. What did the Jew charge for the chickens? just double your price.'

'But it is the Jew's trade, and besides, he isn't a Christian.'

'Therefore he makes the greater profits. Come, Josef, the gentlemen did not pay for the things only, but for the trouble you took.'

This, and the thought that everybody who came from Warsaw obviously had much money to spend, reassured the peasant.

As he and the rest of the family were so much occupied with their new duties, all the harvesting fell to Maciek's share. He had to go to the hill from early dawn till late at night, and cut, bind, and shock the sheaves single-handed. But in spite of his industry the work took longer than usual, and Slimak hired old Sobieska to help him. She came at six o'clock, armed with a bottle of 'remedy' for a wound in the leg, did the work of two while she sang songs which made even Maciek blush,
until the afternoon, and then took her 'remedy'. The cure then pulled her down so much that the scythe fell from her hand.

'Hey, gospodarz!' she would shout. 'You are raking in the money and buying your wife silk handkerchiefs, but the poor farm labourers have to creep on all fours. It's "Cut the corn, Sobieska and Maciek, and I will brag about like a gentleman!" You will see, he will soon call himself "Pan Slimaczinski."[1] He is the devil's own son, for ever and
ever. Amen.'

[Footnote 1: The ending _ski_ denotes nobility.]

She would fall into a furrow and sleep until sundown, though she was paid for a full day's work. As she had a sharp tongue, Slimak had no wish to offend her. When he haggled about the money, she would kiss his hand and say: 'Why should you fall out with me, sir? Sell one chicken more and you'll be all right.'

'Cheek always pays!' thought Maciek.

On the following Sunday, when everyone was ready to go to church, Maciek sat down and sighed heavily.

'Why, Maciek, aren't you going to church?' asked Slimak, seeing that something was amiss.

'How can I go to church? You would be ashamed of me.'

'What's the matter with you?'

'Nothing is the matter with me, but my feet keep coming through my boots.'

'That's your own fault, why didn't you speak before? Your wages are due, and I will give you six roubles.'

Maciek embraced his feet....

'But mind you buy the boots, and don't drink away the money.'

They all started; Slimak walked with his wife, Magda with the boys, and Maciek by himself at a little distance. He dreamt that Slimak would become a gentleman when the railway was finished, and that he, Maciek, would then wait at table, and perhaps get married. Then he crossed himself for having such reckless ideas. How could a poor fellow like him think of marrying? Who would have him? Probably not even Zoska, although she was wrong in the head and had a child.

This was a memorable Sunday for Slimak and his wife. She had bought a silk kerchief at a stall, given twenty kopeks to the beggars, and sat down in the front pew, where Grybina and Lukasiakowa had at once made room for her. As for Slimak, everyone had something to say to him. The publican reproached him for spoiling the prices for the Jews, the organist reminded him that it would be well to pay for an extra Mass for the souls of the departed, even the policeman saluted him, and the priest urged him to keep bees: 'You might come round to the Vicarage, now that you have money and spare time, and perhaps buy a few hives. It does no harm to remember God in one's prosperity and keep bees and give wax to the Church.'

Gryb came up with an unpleasant smile. 'Surely, Slimak, you will treat everybody all round to-day, since you've been so successful?'

'You don't treat the village when you have made a good bargain, neither shall I,' Slimak snubbed him.

'That's not surprising, since I don't make as much profit on a cow as you make on a chicken.'

'All the same, you're richer than other people.'

'There you're right,' Wisniewski supported Slimak, asking him for the loan of a couple of roubles at the same time. But when Slimak refused, he complained of his arrogance.

Maciek did not get much comfort out of the money given him for boots. He stood humbly at the back of the church, so that the Lord should not see his torn sukmana. Then the beggars reminded him that he never gave
them anything. He went to the public-house to get change.

'How about my money, Pan Maciek?' said the publican.

'What money?'

'Have you forgotten? You owe me two roubles since Christmas'

Maciek swore at him. 'Everybody knows that one can only get a drink from you for cash.'

'That's true on the whole. But when you were tipsy at Christmas, you embraced and kissed me so many times, I couldn't help myself and gave you credit.'

'Have you got witnesses?' Maciek said sharply. 'I tell you, old Jew, you won't take me in.'

The publican reflected for a moment.

'I have no witnesses,' he said, 'therefore I will never mention the matter to you again. Since you swear to me here in the presence of other people, that you did not kiss me and beg for credit, I make you a present of your debt, but it's a shame,' the publican added, spitting, 'that a man working for such a respectable gospodarz as Slimak, should cheat a poor Jew. Don't ever set foot in my inn again!'

The labourer hesitated. Did he really owe that money?

'Well,' he said, 'since you say I owe you the money, I will give it you. But take care God does not punish you if you are wronging me.' In his heart, however, he doubted whether God would ever punish any one on account of such a low creature as he was.

He was just leaving the inn sadly, when a band of Galician harvesters came in. They sat down at the table, discussing the profits that would be made from the building of the new railway.

Maciek went up to them, and seeing that their appearance was not much less ragged than his own, he asked if it was true that there were railroads[1] in the world? 'No one,' he said,'would have iron enough to cover roads, not even the government.' The labourers laughed, but one, a huge fellow with a soldier's cap, said: 'What is there to laugh at?
Of course a clodhopper does not know what a railway is. Sit down, brother, and I'll tell you all about it, but let's have a bottle of vodka.'

[Footnote 1: The Polish word for 'railway' is 'iron road'.]

Before Maciek had decided, the publican had brought the vodka.

'Why shouldn't he have vodka?' he said, 'he is a good-natured fellow, he has stood treat before.'

What happened afterwards, Maciek did not clearly remember. He thought that some one told him how fast an engine goes, and that some one else shouted, he ought to buy boots. Later on he was seized by his arms and legs and carried to the stable. One thing was certain, he returned without a penny. Slimakowa would not look at him, and Slimak said: 'You are hopeless, Maciek, you'll never get on, for the devil always leads you into bad company.'

So it happened that Maciek went without new boots, but a few weeks later he acquired a possession he had never dreamt of.

It was a rainy September evening; the more the day declined, the heavier became the layers of clouds. Lower and lower they descended, torn and gloomy. Forest, hill, and valley, even the fence dissolved gradually into the grey veil. The heavy, persistent rain penetrated everything; the ground was full of it, soaked through like kneaded dough; the road was full of it, running with yellow streams; the yard, where it stood in large puddles, was full of it. Roofs and walls were dripping, the animals' skins and even human souls were saturated with it.

Everybody in the gospodarstwo was thinking vaguely of supper, but no one was in the mood for it. The gospodarz yawned, the gospodyni was cross, the boys were sleepy, Magda did even less than usual. They looked at the fire, where the potatoes were slowly boiling, at the door, to watch Maciek come in, or at the window, where the raindrops splashed, falling from the higher, the lower, and the lowest clouds, from the thatch, from the fading leaves of the trees, and from the window frames. When all these splashes mingled into one, they sounded like approaching footfalls. Then the cottage door creaked. 'Maciek,'
muttered the gospodarz. But Maciek did not appear.

A hand was groping along the passage wall.

'What's the matter with him, has he gone blind?' impatiently exclaimed the gospodyni, and opened the door.

Something which was not Maciek was standing in the passage, a shapeless figure, not tall, but bulky. It was wrapped in a soaking wet shawl. Slimakowa stepped back for a moment, but when the firelight fell into the passage, she discerned a human face in the opening of the shawl, copper-coloured, with a broad nose and slanting eyes that were hardly visible under the swollen eyelids.

'The Lord be praised,' said a hoarse voice.

'You, Zoska?' asked the astonished gospodyni.

'It is I.'

'Come in quickly, you are letting all the damp into the room.'

The new-comer stepped forward, but stood still, irresolutely. She held a child in her arms whose face was as white as chalk, with blue lips; she drew out one of its arms; it looked like a stick.

'What are you doing out in weather like this?' asked Slimak.

'I'm going after a place.' She looked round, and decided to crouch down on the floor, near the wall. 'They say in the village that you have a lot of money now; I thought you might want a girl.'

'We don't want a girl, there is not even enough for Magda to do. Why are you out of a place?'

'I've been harvesting in the summer, but now no one will take me in with the child. If I were alone I could get along.'

Maciek came in, and not being aware of Zoska's presence, started on seeing a crouching form on the floor.

'What do you want?' he asked.

'I thought Slimak might take me on, but he doesn't want me with the child.'

'Oh Lord!' sighed the man, moved by the sight of poverty greater than his own.

'Why, Maciek, that sounds as if you had a bad conscience,' said the gospodyni disagreeably.

'It makes one feel bad, to see such wretchedness,' he murmured.

'The man whose fault it is would feel it most!'

'It isn't my fault, but I'm sorry for them all the same.'

'Why don't you take the child, then, if you are so sorry?' sneered Slimakowa, 'you'll give him the child, Zoska, won't you? Is it a boy?'

'A girl,' whispered Zoska, with her eyes fixed on Maciek, 'she is two years old... yes, he can have her, if he likes.'

'She'd be a deal of trouble to me,' muttered the labourer, 'all the same, it's a pity.'

'Take her,' repeated Zoska, 'Slimak is rich, you are rich....'

'Oh yes, Maciek is rich,' laughed Slimakowa, 'he drinks through six roubles in one Sunday.'

'If you can drink through six roubles, you can take her,' Zoska cried vehemently, pulling the child out of the shawl and laying it on the floor. It looked frightened, but did not utter a sound.

'Shut up, Jagna, and don't talk nonsense,' said Slimak. Zoska stood up and stretched herself.

'Now I shall be easy for once,' she said, 'I've often thought I'd like to throw her away into a ditch, but you may as well have her. Mind you look after her properly! If I come back and don't find her, I'll scratch out your eyes.'

'You are crazy,' said Slimak, 'cross yourself.'

'I won't cross myself, I'll go away....'

'Don't be a fool, and sit down to supper,' angrily cried the gospodyni. She took the saucepan off so impetuously, that the hot ashes flew all over the stove, and one touched Zoska's bare feet.

'Fire!... fire!' she shouted, and escaped from the room, 'the cottage is on fire, everything is on fire!'

She staggered out like a drunken person, and they could hear her voice farther and farther off, shouting 'Fire!' until the rain drowned it.

'Run, Maciek, and bring her back,' cried Slimakowa. But Maciek did not stir.

'You can't send a man after a mad woman on a night like this,' said Slimak.

'Well, what am I to do with this dog's child? Do you think I shall feed her?'

'I dare say you won't throw her over the fence. You needn't worry, Zoska will come back for her.'

'I don't want her here for the night.'

'Then what are you going to do with her?' said Slimak, getting angry.

'I'll take her to the stable,' Maciek said in a low voice, lifting the child up awkwardly. He sat down on the bench with it and rocked it gently on his knees. There was silence in the room. Presently Magda, Jendrek, and Stasiek emerged from their corner and stood by Maciek, looking at the little creature.

'She is as thin as a lath,' whispered Magda.

'She doesn't move or look at us,' remarked Jendrek.

'You must feed her from a rag,' advised Magda, 'I will find you a clean one.'

'Sit down to supper,' ordered Slimakowa, but her voice sounded less angry. She looked at the child, first from a distance, then she bent over it and touched its drawn yellow skin.

'That bitch of a mother!' she murmured, 'Magda, put a little milk in a saucer, and you, Maciek, sit down to supper.'

'Let Magda sit down, I'll feed her myself.'

'Feed her!' cried Magda, 'he doesn't even know how to hold her.' She tried to take the child from him.

'Don't pull her to pieces,' said the gospodyni, 'pour out the milk and let Maciek feed her, if he is so keen on it.'

The way in which Maciek performed his task elicited much advice from Magda. 'He has poured the milk all over her mouth...it's running on to the floor...why do you stick the rag into her nose?'

Although he felt that he was making a bad nurse, Maciek would not let the child out of his hands. He hastily ate a little soup, left the rest, and went to his night-quarters in the stable, sheltering the child under his sukmana. When he entered, one of the horses neighed, and the other turned his head and sniffed at the child in the darkness.

'That's right, greet the new stable-boy who can't even hold a whip,' laughed Maciek.

The rain continued to fall. When Slimak looked out later on, the stable door was shut, and he fancied he could hear Maciek snoring.

He returned into the room.

'Are they all right in there?' asked his wife.

'They are asleep,' he replied, and bolted the door.

The cocks had crowed midnight, the dog had barked his answer and squeezed under the cart for shelter, everybody was asleep. Then the stable door creaked, and a shadow stole out, moved along the walls and disappeared into the cowshed. It was Maciek. He drew the whimpering child from under his sukmana and put its mouth to the cow's udder.

'Suck, little one,' he whispered, 'suck the cow, because your mother has left you.'

A few moments later smacking sounds were heard.

And the rain continued to drip...drip...drip, monotonously.

NEXT
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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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