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The Outpost 

by Boleslaw Prus (Aleksander Glowacki)
CHAPTER VI

The announcement that the railway was to be built in the spring caused a great stir in the village. The strangers who went about buying land from the peasants were the sole topic of conversation at the spinning-wheels on winter evenings. One poor peasant had sold his barren gravel hill, and had been able to purchase ten acres of the best land with the proceeds.

The squire and his wife had returned in December, and it was rumoured that they were going to sell the property. The squire was playing the American organ all day long, as usual, and only laughed when the people timidly asked him whether there was any truth in the report. It was the lady who had told her maid in the evening how gay the life in Warsaw would be; an hour later the bailiff's clerk, who was the maid's sweetheart, knew of it; early the next morning the clerk repeated it to the bailiff and to the foreman as a great secret, and by the afternoon all the employees and labourers were discussing the great secret. In the evening it had reached the inn, and then rapidly spread into the cottages and to the small town.

The power of the little word 'Sale' was truly marvellous.

It made the farm labourers careless in their work and the bailiff give notice at New Year; it made the mute hard-working animals grow lean, the sheaves disappear from the barn and the corn from the granary; it made off with the reserve cart-wheels and harnesses, pulled the padlocks off the buildings, took planks out of the fences, and on dark nights it swallowed up now a chicken, now even a sheep or a small pig, and sent the servants to the public-house every night.

A great, a sonorous word! It sounded far and wide, and from the little town came the trades people, presenting their bills. It was written on the face of every man, in the sad eyes of the neglected beasts, on all the doors and on the broken window-panes, plastered up with paper. There were only two people who pretended not to hear it, the gentleman who played the American organ and the lady who dreamt of going to Warsaw. When the neighbours asked them, he shrugged his shoulders, and she sighed and said: 'We should like to sell, it's dull living in the country, but my father in Warsaw has not yet had an offer.'

Slimak, who often went to work at the manor, had also heard the rumour, but he did not believe it. When he met the squire he would look at him and think: 'He can't help being as he is, but if such a misfortune should befall him, I should be grieved for him. They have been settled at the manor from father to son; half the churchyard is full of them, they have all grown up here. Even a stone would fret if it were moved from such a place, let alone a man. Surely, he can't be bankrupt like other noblemen? It's well known that he has money.'

The peasant judged his squire by himself. He did not know what it meant to have a young wife who was bored in the country.

While Slimak put his trust in the squire's unruffled manner, cogitations were going on at the inn under the guidance of Josel, the publican.

One morning, half-way through January, old Sobieska burst into the cottage. Although the winter sun had not yet begun to look round the world, the old woman was flushed, and her eyes looked bloodshot. Her lean chest was insufficiently covered by a sheepskin as old as herself and a torn chemise.

'Here!...give me some vodka and I'll give you a little bit of news,' she called out. Slimak was just going off to thresh, but he sat down again and asked his wife to bring the vodka, for he knew that the old woman usually knew what she was talking about.

She drank a large glassful, stamped her foot, gurgled 'Oo-ah!', wiped her mouth and said: 'I say! the squire is going to sell everything.'

The thought of his field crossed Slimak's mind and made his blood run cold, but he answered calmly: 'Gossip!'

'Gossip?' the old woman hiccoughed, 'I tell you, it's gospel truth, and I'll tell you more: the richer gospodarze are settling with Josel and Gryb to buy the whole estate and the whole village from the squire, so help me God!'

'How can they settle that without me?'

'Because they want to keep you out. They say you will be better off as it is, because you will be nearer to the station, and that you have already made a lot of money by spoiling other people's business.'

She drained another glass and would have said more, but was suddenly overcome, and had to be carried out of the room by Slimak.

He and his wife consulted for the rest of the day what would be the best thing to do under the circumstances. Towards evening he put on his new sukmana lined with sheepskin and went to the inn.

Gryb and Lukasiak were sitting at the table. By the light of the two tallow candles they looked like two huge boundary-stones in their grey clothes. Josel stood behind the bar in a dirty jersey with black stripes. He had a sharp nose, pointed beard, pointed curls, and wore a peaked cap; there was something pointed also in his look.

'The Lord be praised,' said Slimak.

'In Eternity,' Josel answered indifferently.

'What are the gospodarze drinking?'

'Tea,' the innkeeper replied.

'Then I will have tea too, but let it be as black as pitch, and with plenty of arrac.'

'Have you come to drink tea with us?' Josel taunted him.

'No,' said Slimak, slowly sitting down, 'I've come to find out....'

'What old Sobieska meant,' finished the innkeeper in an undertone.

'How about this business? is it true that you are buying land from the squire?' asked Slimak.

The two gospodarze exchanged glances with Josel, who smiled. After a pause Lukasiak replied:

'Oh, we are talking of it for want of something better to do, but who would have the money for such a big undertaking?'

'You two between you could buy it!'

'Perhaps we may, but it would be for ourselves and those living in the village.'

'What about me?'

'You don't take us into your confidence about your business affairs, so mind you keep out of ours.'

'It's not only your affair, but concerns the whole village.'

'No, it's nobody's but mine,' snapped Gryb.

'It's mine just as much.'

'That is not so!' Gryb struck the table with his fist: if I don't like a man, he shan't buy, and there's an end of it.'

The publican smiled. Seeing that Slimak was getting pale with anger, Lukasiak took Gryb by the arm.

'Let us go home, neighbour,' he said. 'What is the good of talking about things that may never come off? Come along.'

Gryb looked at Josel and got up.

'So you are going to buy without me?' asked Slimak.

'You bought without us last summer.' They shook hands with the innkeeper and took no notice of Slimak.

Josel looked after them until their footsteps could no longer be heard, then, still smiling, he turned to Slimak.

'Do you see now, gospodarz, that it is a bad thing to take the bread out of a Jew's mouth? I have lost fifty roubles through you and you have made twenty-five, but you have bought a hundred roubles' worth of trouble, for the whole village is against you.'

'They really mean to buy the squire's land without me?'

'Why shouldn't they? What do they care about your loss if they can gain?'

'Well...well,' muttered the peasant sadly.

'I,' said Josel, 'might perhaps be able to arrange the affair for you, but what should I gain by it? You have never been well disposed towards me, and you have already done me harm.'

'So you won't arrange it?'

'I might, but on my own terms.'

'What are they?'

'First of all you will give me back the fifty roubles. Secondly, you will build a cottage on your land for my brother-in-law.'

'What for?'

'He will keep horses and drive people to and from the station.'

'And what am I to do with my horses?'

'You have your land.'

The gospodarz got up. 'Aren't you going to give me any tea?'

'I haven't any in the house.'

'Very well; I won't pay you fifty roubles, and I won't build a cottage for your brother-in-law.'

'Do as you please.' Slimak left the inn, banging the door.

Josel turned his pointed nose and beard in his direction and smiled.

In the darkness Slimak collided with a labourer from the manor who carried a sack of corn on his back; presently he saw one of the servant girls hiding a goose under her sheepskin. When she recognized him she ran behind the fence. But Josel continued to smile. He smiled, when he paid the labourer a rouble for the corn, including the sack; he smiled, when the girl handed over the goose and got a bottle of sour beer in return; he smiled, when he listened to the gospodarze discussing the purchase of the land, and he smiled when he paid old Gryb two roubles per cent., and took two roubles from young Gryb for every ten he lent him. His smile no more came off his face than his dirty jersey came off his back.

The fire was out and the children were asleep when Slimak returned home.

'Well?' asked his wife, while he was undressing in the dark.

'This is a trick of Josel's. He drives the others like a team of oxen.'

'They won't let you in?'

'They won't, but I shall go to the squire about the field.'

'When are you going?'

'To-morrow, else it may be too late.'

To-morrow came; the day after came and went; a week passed, but Slimak had not yet done anything. One day he said he must thresh for a corn dealer, the other day that he had a pain inside.

As a matter of fact, he neither threshed nor had a pain inside; but something held him back which peasants call being afraid, gentlemen slackness, and scholars inertia.

He ate little, wandered round aimlessly, and often stood still in the snow-covered field by the river, struggling with himself. Reason told him that he ought to go to the manor and settle the matter, but another power held him fast and whispered: 'Don't hurry, wait another day, it will all come right somehow.'

'Josef, why don't you go to the squire?' his wife asked day after day.

One evening old Sobieska turned up again. She was suffering from rheumatism, and required treatment with a 'thimbleful' of vodka which loosened her tongue.

'It was like this,' she began: 'Gryb and Lukasiak went with Grochowski, all three dressed as for a Corpus Christi procession. The squire received them in the bailiff's office, and Gryb cleared his throat and went for it. "We have heard, sir, that you are going to sell your family estate. Every man has a right to sell, and the other to buy. But it would be a pity to allow the land which your forefathers possessed, and which we peasants have cultivated, to fall into the hands of
strangers who have no associations with old times. Therefore, sir, sell the land to us." I tell you,'Sobieska continued, 'he talked for an hour, like the priest in the pulpit; at last Lukasiak got stiff in the back,[1] and they all burst out crying. Then they embraced the squire's feet, and he took their heads between his hands[2] and...'

[Footnote 1: The peasants would stand bent all the time.]

[Footnote 2: A nobleman, in order to show goodwill to his subordinates, slightly presses their heads between his hands.]

'Well, and are they buying?' Slimak interrupted impatiently.

'Why shouldn't they buy? Certainly they are buying. They are not yet quite agreed as to the price, for the squire wants a hundred roubles an acre, and the peasants are offering fifty; but they cried so much, and talked so long about good feeling between peasants and landowners that the gospodarze will add another ten, and the squire will let them off the rest. Josel has told them to give that much and no more, and not to be in a hurry, then they'll be sure to drive a good bargain. He's a
damned clever Jew! Since he has taken the matter in hand, people have flocked to the inn as if the Holy Mother were working miracles there.'

'Is he still setting the others against me?'

'He is not actually setting them against you, but he puts in a word now and then that you can no longer count as a gospodarz, since you have taken to trading. The others are even more angry with you than he is; they can't forget that you sold chickens at just double the price you bought them for.'

The result of this news was that Slimak set out for the manor-house early the next day, and returned depressed in the afternoon. A large bowl of sauerkraut presently made him willing to discourse.

'It was like this: I arrive at the manor, and when I look up I see that all the windows of the large room on the ground floor are wide open. God forbid! has some one died? I think to myself. I peep in and see Mateus, the footman, in a white apron with brushes on his feet, skating up and down like the boys on the ice. "The Lord be praised, Mateus, what are you doing?" I say. "In Eternity, I am polishing the floor," says he; "we are going to have a big dance here to-night." "Is the
squire up yet?" "He is up, but the tailor is with him; he is trying on a Crakovian costume. My lady is going to be a gipsy." "I want him to sell me that field," I say. Mateus says: "Don't be a fool! how can the squire think of your field, when he is amusing himself making up as a Crakovian." So I go away from the window and stand about near the kitchen for a bit. They are bustling like anything, the fire is burning like a forge, and the butter is hissing. Presently Ignaz, the kitchen boy, comes out, covered with blood, as if he had been stuck. "Ignaz, for God's sake, what have you been doing?" I ask. "I haven't been doing anything; it's the cook, he's been boxing my ears with a dead duck." "The Lord be praised it is not your blood. Tell me where I can find the squire." "Wait here," he says, "they'll bring in the boar, and the squire is sure to come and have a look at it." Ignaz runs off, and I wait and wait, until the shivers run down my back. But still I wait.'

'Well, and did you see the squire?' Slimakowa asked impatiently.

'Of course I saw him.'

'Did you speak to him?'

'Rather!'

'What did you settle?'

'Well...ah...I told him I wanted to beg a favour of him about the field, but he said, "Oh, leave me alone, I have no head for business to-day."'

'And when will you go again?'

Slimak held up his hands: 'Perhaps to-morrow, or the day after, when they have slept off their dance.'

That same day Maciek drove a sledge to the forest, taking with him an axe, a bite of food, and 'Silly Zoska's' daughter. The mother had never asked after her, and Maciek had mothered the child; he fed her, took her to the stable with him at night and to his work in the day-time.

The child was so weak that it hardly ever uttered a sound. Every one, especially Sobieska, had predicted her early death.

'She won't last a week.'...'She'll die tomorrow.'...'She's as good as gone already.'

But she had lived through the week and longer, and even when she had been taken for dead once, she opened her tired eyes to the world again. Maciek paid no attention to these prognostications. 'Never fear,' he said, 'nothing will happen to her.' He continued to feed her in the cowshed after dark.

'What makes you take trouble about that wretched child, Maciek?' Slimakowa would say; 'if you talked to her about the Blessed Bible itself she would take no notice; she's dreadfully stupid, I never saw such a noodle in all my life.'

'She doesn't talk, because she has sense,' said Maciek; 'when she begins to talk she will be as wise as an old man.'

That was because Maciek was in the habit of talking to her about his work, whatever he might be doing, manuring, threshing, or patching his clothes.

To-day he was taking her with him to the forest, tied to the sledge, and wrapt in the remnants of his old sheepskin and a shawl. Uphill and downhill over the hummocks bumped the sledge, until they arrived on level ground, where the slanting rays of the sun, endlessly reflected from the snow-crystals, fell into their eyes. The child began to cry.

Maciek turned her sideways, scolding: 'Now then, I told you to shut your eyes! No man, and if he were the bishop himself, can look at the sun; it's God's lantern. At daybreak the Lord Jesus takes it into his hand and has a look round his gospodarstwo. In the winter, when the frost is hard, he takes a short cut and sleeps longer. But he makes up for it in the summer, and looks all over the world till eight o'clock at night. That's why one should be astir from daybreak till sunset. But you may sleep longer, little one, for you aren't much use yet. Woa!' They entered the forest. 'Here we are! this is the forest, and it belongs to the squire. Slimak has bought a cartload of wood, and we must get it home before the roads are too bad. Steady, lads!' They stopped by a square pile of wood. Maciek untied the child and put her in a sheltered place, took out a bottle of milk and put it to her lips. 'Drink it and get strong, there will be some work for you. The logs are
heavy, and you must lift them into the sledge. You don't want the milk? Naughty girl! Call out when you want it.... A little child like that makes things cheerful for a man,' he reflected. 'Formerly there never was any one to open one's mouth to, now one can talk all the time. Now watch how the work should be done. Jendrek would pull the logs about, and get tired in no time and stop. But mind you take them from the top, carefully, and lift them into the sledge, one by one like this. Never be in a hurry, little one, or else the damned wood will tire you out. It doesn't want to go on to the sledge, for it has sense, and knows what to expect. We all prefer our own corner of the world, even if it is a bad one. But to you and me it's all the same, we have no corner of our own; die here or die there, it makes no difference.' Now and then he rested, or tucked the child up more closely.

Meanwhile, the sky had reddened, and a strong north-west wind sprang up, saturated with moisture. The forest, held in its winter sleep, slowly began to move and to talk. The green pine needles trembled, then the branches and boughs began to sway and beckon to each other. The tops, and finally the stems rocked forward and backward, as if they contemplated starting on a march. It was as if their eternal fixedness grieved them, and they were setting out in a tumultuous crowd to the ends of the world. Sometimes they became motionless near the sledge, as though they did not wish to betray their secret to a human being. Then the tramp of countless feet, the march past of whole columns of the right wing, could be heard distinctly; they approached, and passed at a distance. The left wing followed; the snow creaked under their footsteps, they were already in a line with the sledge. The middle column, emboldened, began to call in mighty whispers. Then they halted angrily, stood still in their places and seemed to roar: 'Go away! go away, and do not hinder us!'

But Maciek was only a poor labourer, and though he was afraid of the giants, and would gladly have made room for them, he could not leave until he had loaded up his sledge. He did not rest now or rub his frozen hands; he worked as fast as he could, so that the night and the winter storms should not overtake him.

The sky grew darker and darker with clouds; mists rose in the forests and froze into fine crystals which instantly covered Maciek's sukmana, the child's shawl, and the horses' manes with a crackling crust. The logs became so slippery that his hands could scarcely hold them; the ground was like glass. He looked anxiously towards the setting sun: it was dangerous to return with a heavy load when the roads were in that condition. He crossed himself, put the child into the sledge, and
whipped up the horses. Maciek stood in fear of many things, but most of all he feared the overturning of a sledge or cart, and being crushed underneath.

When they were out of the wood the track became worse and worse. The rough-hewn runners constantly sank into snow-drifts and the sledge canted over, so that the poor man, trembling with fear and cold, had to prop it up with all his strength. If his twisted foot gave way, there was an end to him and the child.

From time to time the horses stopped dead, and Maciek ceased shouting. Then a great silence spread round him, only the distant roar of the forest, the whistling of the wind, and the whimpering of the child could be heard.

'Woa!' he began again, and the horses tugged and slipped where they stood, moved on a few steps, and stopped again.

'To Thy protection we flee, Holy Mother of God!' he whispered, took his axe and cut into the smooth road in front of the horses.

It took him a long time to cover the short distance to the high road, but when they got there, the horses refused to go on at all. The hill in front of them was impassable. He sat down on the sledge, pondering whether Slimak would come to his assistance, or leave him to his fate. 'He'll come for the horses; don't cry, little one, God won't forsake us.' While he listened, it seemed to him as if the whistling of the wind changed into the sound of bells. Was it his fancy? But the bells
never ceased; some were deep-toned and some high-toned; voices were intermixed with them. They approached from behind like a swarm of bees in the summer.

'What can it be?' said Maciek, and stood up.

Small flames shone in the distance. They disappeared among the juniper bushes, and then flickered up again, now high, now low, coming nearer and nearer, until a number of objects, running at full speed, could be seen in the uncertain light of the flames. The tumult of voices increased; Maciek heard the clattering of hoofs, the cracking of whips.

'Heh! stop...there's a hill there!'

'Look out! don't be crazy!'

'Stop the sledge, I shall get out!'

'No, go on!'

'Jesus Mary!'

'Have the musicians been spilt yet?'

'Not yet, but they will be.'

'Oh...la la!'

Maciek now understood that this was a sleigh race. The teams of two-and four-horsed sleighs approached at a gallop, accompanied by riders on horseback carrying torches. In the thick mist it looked as if the procession appeared out of an abyss through a circular gate of fire. They bore straight down upon the spot where Maciek and his sledge had come to a standstill. Suddenly the first one stopped.

'Hey...what's that?'

'Something is in the way.'

'What is it?'

'A peasant with a cartload of wood.'

'Out of the way, dog. Throw him into the ditch!'

'Shut up! We'd better move him on.'

'That we will! We are going to move the peasant on. Out of your sledges, gentlemen!'

Before Maciek had recovered from his astonishment, he was surrounded by masked men in rich costumes with plumed hats, swords, guitars, or brooms. They seized his sledge and himself, pushed them to the top of the hill and down the other side on to level ground.

'Thank God!' thought the dazed man. 'If the devil hadn't led them this way, I might have been here till the morning. They are fine fellows!'

'The ladies are afraid to drive down the hill,' some one shouted from the distance.

'Then let them get out and walk!'

'The sledges had better not go down.'

'Why not? Go on, Antoni!'

'I don't advise it, sir.'

'Then get off and be hanged! I'll drive myself!'

Bells jingled violently, and a one-horse sledge passed Maciek like a whirlwind. He crossed himself.

'Drive on, Andrei!'

'Stop, Count! It's too risky!'

'Go on!'

Another sledge flew past.

'Bravo! Sporting fellow!'

'Drive on, Jacent!'

Two sledges were racing each other, a driver and a mask in each. The mad race had made the road sufficiently safe for the other empty sledges to pass with greater caution.

'Now give your arm to the ladies! A polonaise! Musicians!'

The outriders with torches posted themselves along the road, the musicians tuned up, and couple after couple detached itself from the darkness like an iridescent apparition. They hovered past to the melancholy strains of the Oginski polonaise.

Maciek took off his cap, drew the child from under the sheepskin and stood beside his sledge.

'Now look, you'll never see anything so beautiful again. Don't be afraid!'

An armoured and visored man passed.

'Do you see that knight? Formerly people like that conquered half the world, now there are none of them left.'

A grey-bearded senator passed.

'Look at him! People used to fear his judgment, but there are none like him left! That one, as gaudy as a woodpecker, was a great nobleman once; he did nothing but drink and dance; he could drain a barrel at a bout, and he spent so much money that he had to sell his family estate, poor wretch! There's a Uhlan; they used to fight for Napoleon and conquer all the nations, but there are no fighters left in the world. There's a chimney sweep and a peasant...but in reality they are all
gentlemen amusing themselves.'

The procession passed; fainter and fainter grew the strains of the Oginski polonaise; with shouts and laughter the masks got back into the sleighs, hoofs clattered and whips cracked.

Maciek started cautiously homeward in the wake of the jingling sleighs. Distant flames were still twinkling ahead, and the wind carried faint sounds of merriment back to him. Then all was silent.

'Are they doing right?' he murmured, perturbed.

For he recalled the portrait of the grey-headed senator in the choir of the church; he had even prayed to it sometimes.... The bald-headed nobleman was there too, whom the peasants called 'the cursed man', and the knight in armour who was lying on his tomb beside the altar of the Holy Martyr Apollonius. Then he remembered the friar who walked through the Vistula, and Queen Jadwiga who had brought salt from Hungary. And by the side of all these he saw his own old wise grandfather, Roch
Owczarz, who had been a soldier under Napoleon, and came home without a penny, and in his old age became sacristan at the church, and explained all the pictures to the gospodarze so beautifully that he earned more money than the organist.

'The Lord rest his soul eternally!'

And now these noblemen were amusing themselves with sacred matters! What would they do next?...

Slimak met him when he was about a verst from the cottage.

'We have been wondering if you had got stuck on the hill. Thank God you are safe. Did you see the sleigh race?'

'Oho!' said Maciek.

'I wonder they did not smash you to pieces.'

'Why should they? They even helped me up the hill.'

'Dear me! And they didn't pull you about?'

'They only pulled my cap over my ears.'

'That is just like them; either they will smash you up, or else be kindness itself, it just depends what temper they're in.'

'But the way they drove down those hills made one's flesh creep. No sober man would have come out of it alive.'

Two sledges now overtook them; there was one traveller in the first and two in the second.

'Can you tell me where that sleigh party was driving to?' asked the occupant of the first.

'To the squire's.'

'Indeed!... Do you know if Josel, the innkeeper, is at home?'

'I dare say he is, unless he is off on some swindle or other.'

'Do you know if your squire has sold his estate yet?' asked a guttural voice from the second sledge.

'You shouldn't ask him such a question, Fritz,' remonstrated his companion.

'Oh! the devil take the whole business!' replied Fritz.

'Aha, here they are again!' said Slimak.

'What do all those Old Testament Jews want?' asked Maciek.

'There was only one Jew, the others are Germans from Wolka.'

'The gentlefolks never have any peace; no sooner do they want to enjoy themselves, than the Jews drive after them,' said Maciek.

Indeed, the sledges conveying the travellers were now with difficulty driving towards the valley, and presently stopped at Josel's inn.

Barrels of burning pitch in front of the manor house threw a rosy glare over the wintry landscape; distant sounds of music came floating on the air.

Josel came out and directed the Jew's sledge to the manor. The Germans got out, and one of them shouted after the departing Jew: 'You will see nothing will come of it; they are amusing themselves.'

'Well, and what of that?'

'A nobleman does not give up a dance for a business interview.'

'Then he will sell without it.'

'Or put you off.'

'I have no time for that.'

The facade of the manor-house glowed as in a bengal light; the sleigh-bells were still tinkling in the yard, where the coachmen were quarrelling over accommodation for their horses. Crowds of village people were leaning against the railings to watch the dancers flit past the windows, and to catch the strains of the music. Around all this noise, brightness, and merriment lay the darkness of the winter night, and from the winter night emerged slowly the sledge, carrying the silent, meditating Jew.

His modest conveyance stopped at the gate, and he dragged himself to the kitchen entrance; his whole demeanour betrayed great mental and physical tiredness. He tried to attract the attention of the cook, but failed entirely; the kitchen-maid also turned her back on him. At last he got hold of a boy who was hurrying across to the pantry, seized him by the shoulders, and pressed a twenty kopek-piece into his hand.

'You shall have another twenty kopeks if you will bring the footman.'

'Does your honour know Mateus?' The boy scrutinized him sharply.

'I do, bring him here.'

Mateus appeared without delay.

'Here is a rouble for you; ask your master if he will see me, and I will double it.' The footman shook his head.

'The master is sure to refuse.'

'Tell him, it is Pan Hirschgold, on urgent business from my lady's father. Here is another rouble, so that you do not forget the name.'

Mateus quickly disappeared, but did not quickly return. The music stopped, yet he did not return; a polka followed, yet he did not return. At last he appeared: 'The master asks you to come to the bailiff's office.' He took Pan Hirschgold into a room where several camp-beds had been made up for the guests. The Jew took off his expensive fur, sat down in an armchair by the fire and meditated.

The polka had been finished, and a vigorous mazurka began. The tumult and stamping increased from time to time; commands rang out, and were followed by a noise which shook the house from top to bottom. The Jew listened indifferently, and waited without impatience.

Suddenly there was a great commotion in the passage; the door was opened impetuously, and the squire entered.

He was dressed as a Crakovian peasant in a red coat covered with jingling ornaments, wide, pink-and-white-striped breeches, a red cap with a peacock's feather, and iron-shod shoes.

'How are you, Pan Hirschgold?' he cried good-humouredly, 'what is this urgent message from my father-in-law?'

'Read it, sir.'

'What, now? I'm dancing a mazurka.'

'And I am building a railway.'

The squire bit his lip, and quickly ran his eye over the letter. The noise of the dancers increased.

'You want to buy my estate?'

'Yes, and at once, sir.'

'But you see that I am giving a dance.'

'The colonists are waiting to come in, sir. If you cannot settle with me before midnight, I shall settle with your neighbour. He gains, and you lose.'

The squire was becoming feverish.

'My father-in-law recommends you highly...all the same,...on the spur of the moment....'

'You need only write a word or two.'

The squire dashed his red cap down on the table. 'Really, Pan Hirschgold, this is unbearable!'

'It's not my fault; I should like to oblige you, but business is pressing.'

There was another hubbub in the passage, and the Uhlan burst into the room, 'For heaven's sake, what are you doing, Wladek?'

'Urgent business.'

'But your lady is waiting for you!'

'Do arrange for some one to take my place; I tell you, it's urgent.'

'I don't know how the lady will take it!' cried the retreating Uhlan.

The powerful bass voice of the leader of the mazurka rang out: 'Ladies' ronde!'

'How much will you give me?' hastily began the squire. 'Rather an original situation!' he unexpectedly added, with humour.

'Seventy-five roubles an acre. This is my highest offer. To-morrow I should only give sixty-seven.'

'En avant!' from the ball-room.

'Never!' cried the squire, 'I should prefer to sell to the peasants.'

'And get fifty, or at the outside sixty.'

'Or go on managing the estate myself.'

'You are doing that now...what is the result?'

'What do you mean?' said the squire irritably, 'it's excellent soil....'

'I know all about the property,' interrupted the Jew, 'from the bailiff who left at New Year.'

The squire became angry. 'I can sell to the colonists myself.'

'They may give sixty-seven, but meanwhile my lady is dying of boredom.'

'Chàine to the left!'

The squire became desperate. 'God, what am I to do?'

'Sign the agreement. Your father-in-law advises you to do so, and tells you that I shall pay the highest price.'

'Partagez!'

Again the Uhlan violently burst into the room.

'Wladek, you really must come; the Count is mortally offended, and says he will take his fiancée away.'

'Oh, confound it! Pan Hirschgold, write the agreement at once, I will be back directly.'

Unmindful of the gaiety of the dance, the Jew calmly took an inkpot, pen, and paper out of his bag, wrote a dozen lines, and sat down, waiting for the noise to subside.

A quarter of an hour later the squire returned in the best of spirits.

'Ready?' he asked cheerfully.

'Ready.'

The squire read the paper, signed, and said with a smile:

'What, do you think is the value of this agreement?'

'Perhaps the legal value is not great, but it has some value for your father-in-law, and he...well, he is a rich man!'

He blew on the signature, folded up the paper, and asked with a shade of irony: 'Well, and the Count?'

'Oh, he is pacified.'

'He will want more pacifying presently, when his creditors become annoying. I wish you a pleasant night, sir.'

No sooner had the squire left the room, than Mateus, the footman, appeared, as if the ground had produced him. He helped the Jew into his coat.

'Did you buy the estate, sir?'

'Why shouldn't I? It's not the first, nor will it be the last.'

He gave the footman three roubles. Mateus bowed to the ground and offered to call his sledge.

'Oh no, thank you,' said the Jew, 'I have left my own sledge in Warsaw, and I am not anxious to parade this wretched conveyance.'

Nevertheless, Mateus attended him deferentially into the yard.

In the ballroom polkas, valses, and mazurkas followed each other endlessly until the pale dawn appeared, and the cottage fires were lit.

Slimak rose with the winter sun, and whispering a prayer, walked out of the gate. He looked at the sky, then towards the manor-house, wondering how long the merrymaking was going to last.

The sky was blue, the first sun rays were bathing the snow in rose colour, and the clouds in purple. Slimak drew a deep breath, and felt that it was better to be out in the fresh air than indoors, dancing.

'Making themselves tired without need,' he thought, 'when they might be sleeping to their hearts' content!' Then he resumed his prayer. His attention was attracted by voices, and he saw two men in navy blue overcoats. When they caught sight of him, one asked at once:

'That is your hill, gospodarz, isn't it?'

Slimak looked at them in surprise.

'Why do you keep on asking me about my property? I told you last summerthat the hill was mine.'

'Then sell it to us,' said the man with the beard.

'Wait, Fritz,' interrupted the older man.

'Oh bother! are you going to gossip again, father?'

'Look here, gospodarz,' said the father, 'we have bought the squire's estate. Now we want this; hill, because we want to build a windmill....'

'Gracious!' exclaimed the son disagreeably, 'have you lost your senses,
father? Listen! we want that land!'

'My land?' the peasant repeated in amazement, looking about him, 'my land?'

He hesitated for a moment, not knowing what to say. 'What right have you gentlemen to my land?'

'We have got money.'

'Money?...I!...Sell my land for money? We have been settled here from father to son; we were here at the time of the scourge of serfdom, and even then we used to call the land "ours". My father got it for his own by decree from the Emperor Alexander II; the Land Commission settled all that, and we have the proper documents with signatures attached. How can you say now that you want to buy my land?'

The younger man had turned away indifferently during Slimak's long speech and whistled, the older man shook his fist impatiently.

'But we want to buy it...pay for it...cash! Sixty roubles an acre.'

'And I wouldn't sell it for a hundred,' said Slimak.

'Perhaps we could come to terms, gospodarz.' The peasant burst out laughing.

'Old man, have you lived so long in this world, and don't understand that I would not sell my land on any terms whatever?'

'You could buy thirty acres the other side of the Bug with what we should pay you.'

'If land is so cheap the other side of the Bug, why don't you buy it yourself instead of coming here?' The son laughed.

'He is no fool, father; he is telling you what I have been telling you from morning till night.'

The old man took Slimak's hand.

'Gospodarz,' he said, pressing it, 'let us talk like Christians and not like heathens. We praise the same God, why should we not agree? You see, I have a son who is an expert miller, and I should like him to have a windmill on that hill. When he has a windmill he will grow steady and work and get married. Then I could be happy in my old age. That hill is nothing to you.'

'But it's my land, no one has a right to it.'

'No one has a right to it, but I want to buy it.'

'Well, and I won't sell it!'

The old man made a wry face, as if he were ready to cry. He drew the peasant a few steps aside, and said in a voice trembling with emotion: 'Why are you so hard on me, gospodarz? You see, my sons don't hit it off with each other. The elder is a farmer, and I want to set up the younger as a miller and have him near me. I haven't long to live, I am eighty years old, don't quarrel with me.'

'Can't you buy land elsewhere?'

'Not very well. We are a whole community settling together; it would take a long time to make other arrangements. My son Wilhelm does not like farming, and unless I buy him a windmill he will starve or go away from me. I am an old man, sell me your land! Listen,' he whispered, 'I will give you seventy-five roubles an acre. God is my witness, I am offering you more than the land is worth. But you will let me have it, won't you? You are an honest man and a Christian.'

Slimak looked with astonishment and pity at the old man, from whose inflamed eyes the tears were pouring down.

'You can't have much sense, sir, to ask me such a thing,' he said. 'Would you ask a man to cut off his hand? What could a peasant do without his land?'

'You could buy twice as much. I will help you to find it.'

Slimak shook his head. 'You are talking as a man talks when he digs up a shrub in the woods. "Come," he says, "you shall be near my cottage!" The shrub comes because it must, but it soon dies.'

The man with the beard approached and spoke to his father in German.

'So you won't sell me your land?' said the old man.

'I won't.'

'Not for seventy-five roubles?'

'No.'

'And I tell you, you will sell it,' cried the younger man, drawing his father away. They went towards the bridge, talking German loudly.

The peasant rested his chin on his hand and looked after them; then his eyes fell on the manor-house, and he returned to the cottage at full speed. 'Jagna,' he cried, 'do you know that the squire has sold his estate?' The gospodyni crossed herself with a spoon.

'In the name of the Father...Are you mad, Josef? Who told you so?'

'Two Germans spoke to me just now; they told me. And, Jagna, they want to buy our land, our own land!'

'You are off your head altogether!' cried the woman. 'Jendrek, go and see if there are any Germans about; your father is talking nonsense.'

Jendrek returned with the information that he had seen two men in blue overcoats the other side of the bridge.

Slimak sat on the bench, his head drooping, his hands resting limply on his knees. The morning light had turned grey, and made men and objects look dull. The gospodyni suddenly looked attentively at her husband.

'Why are you so pale?' she asked. 'What is the matter?'

'What is the matter? A nice question for a clever woman to ask! Don't you understand that the Germans will take the field away from us if the squire has sold it to them?'

'Why should they? We could pay the rent to them.'

The woman tried to talk confidently, but her voice was unsteady.

'You don't know what you're talking about! Germans keep cattle and are sharp after grazing land. Besides, they will want to get rid of me.'

'We shall see who gets rid of whom!' Slimakowa said sharply.

She came and stood in front of her husband, with her arms akimbo, gradually raising her voice.

'Lord, what a man! He has only just looked at the Swabian[1] vermin, and he has lost heart already. They will take away the field? Well, what of that? we will drive the cattle into it all the same.'

[Footnote 1: The Polish peasants call all Germans 'Swabians'.]

'They will shoot the cattle.'

'That isn't allowed.'

'Then they will go to law and worry the life out of me.'

'Very well, then we will buy fodder.'

'Where? The gospodarze won't sell us any, and we shan't get a blade from the Germans.'

The breakfast was boiling over, but the housewife paid no attention to it. She shook her clenched fists at her husband.

'What do you mean, Josef! Pull yourself together! This is bad, and that is no good!...What will you do then? You are taking the courage away from me, a woman, instead of making up your mind what to do. Aren't you ashamed before the children and Magda to sit there like a dying man, rolling your eyes? Do you think I shall let the children starve for the sake of your Germans, or do you think I shall get rid of the cow? Don't imagine that I shall allow you to sell your land! No fear! If I fall down dead and they bury me, I shall dig myself out again and prevent you from doing the children harm! Why are you sitting there, looking at me like a sheep? Eat your breakfast and go to the manor. Find out if the squire has really sold his land, and if he hasn't, fall at his feet, and lie there till he lets you have the field, even if you have to pay sixty roubles.'

'And if he has sold it?'

'If he has sold it, may God punish him!'

'That won't give us the field.'

'You are a fool!' she cried. 'We and the children and the cattle have lived by God's grace and not by the squire's.'

'That's so,' said Slimak, suddenly getting up. 'Give me my breakfast. What are you crying for?'

After her passionate outburst Slimakowa had actually broken down.

'How am I not to cry,' she sobbed, 'when the merciful God has punished me with such an idiot of a husband? He will do nothing himself and takes away my courage into the bargain.'

'Don't be a fool,' he said, with his face clouding. 'I'll go to the squire at once, even if I should have to give sixty roubles.'

'But if the field is sold?'

'Hang him, we have lived by the grace of God and not by his.'

'Then where will you get fodder?'

'Look after your pots and pans, and don't meddle with a man's affairs.'

'The Germans will drive you away.'

'The deuce they will!' He struck the table with his fist. 'If I were to fall down dead, if they chopped me into little pieces, I wouldn't let the dogs have my land. Give me my breakfast, or I'll ask you the reason why!...And you, Jendrek, be off with Maciek, or I shall get the strap!'

The sun shone into the ballroom of the manorhouse through every chink and opening; streaks of white light lay on the floor, which was dented by the dancers' heels, and on the walls; the rays were reflected in the mirrors, rested on the gilt cornices and on the polished furniture. In comparison with them the light of the candles and lamps looked yellow and turbid. The ladies were pale and had blue circles round their eyes, the powder was falling from their dishevelled hair, their dresses were crumpled, and here and there in holes. The padding showed under the imitation gold of the braids and belts of notables; rich velvets had turned into cheap velveteens, beaver fur to rabbit skins, and silver armour to tin. The musicians' hands dropped, the dancers' legs had grown stiff. Intoxication had cooled and given place to heaviness; lips
were breathing feverishly. Only three couples were now turning in the middle of the room, then two, then none. There was a lack of arm-chairs for the men; the ladies hid their yawns behind their fans. At last the music ceased, and as no one said anything, a dead silence spread through the room. Candles began to splutter and went out, lamps smoked.

'Shall we go in to tea?' asked the squire, in a hoarse voice.

'To bed...to bed,' whispered the guests.

'The bedrooms are ready,' he said, trying to sound cheerful, in spite of sleepiness and a cold.

The ladies immediately got up, threw their wraps over their shoulders and left the room, turning their faces away from the windows.

Soon the ballroom was empty, save for the old cellist, who had gone to sleep with his arms round his instrument. The bustle was transferred to distant rooms; there was much stamping upstairs and noise of men's voices in the courtyard. Then all became silent.

The squire came clinking along the passages, looked dully round the ballroom, and said, yawning: 'Put out the lights, Mateus, and open the windows. Where is my lady?'

'My lady has gone to her room.'

My lady, in her orange-velvet gipsy costume and a diamond hoop in her hair, was lying in an arm-chair, her head thrown back. The squire dropped into another arm-chair, yawning broadly.

'Well, it was a great success.'

'Splendid,' yawned my lady.

'Our guests ought to be satisfied.' After a while he spoke again.

'Do you know that I have sold the estate?'

'To whom?'

'To Hirschgold; he is giving me seventy-five roubles an acre.'

'Thank God we shall get away at last.'

'Well, you might come and give me a kiss!'

'I'm much too tired. Come here, if you want one.'

'I deserve that you should come here. I've done exceedingly well.'

'No, I won't. Hirschgold...Hirschgold...oh yes, some acquaintance of father's. The first mazurka was splendid, wasn't it?'

The squire was snoring.

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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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