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The Outpost 

by Boleslaw Prus (Aleksander Glowacki)
CHAPTER VIII

Slimak had never been so well off as he was that spring; money was flowing into his chest while he took his leisure and looked around him at all the new things.

Formerly, after a heavy day, he had thrown himself on his bed and had scarcely fallen asleep like a stone when his wife would pull the cover off him, crying: 'Get up, Josef; it is morning.'

'How can it be morning?' he thought; 'I've only just lain down.' All the same he had to gather his bones together, when each one individually held to the bed; willy-nilly he had to get up. So hard was the resolution sometimes, that he even thought with pleasure of the eternal sleep, when his wife would no longer stand over him and urge: 'Get up, wash...you'll be late; they'll take it off your wages.'

Then he would dress, and drag the equally tired horses out of the stable, so overcome with sleep that he would pause on the threshold and mutter, 'I shall stay at home!' But he was afraid of his wife, and he
also knew very well that he could not make both ends meet at the gospodarstwo without his wages.

Now all that was different. He slept as long as he liked. Sometimes his wife pulled him by the leg from habit and said: 'Get up, Josef.' But, opening only one eye, lest sleep should run away from him, he would
growl: 'Leave me alone!' and sleep, maybe, till the church bell rang for Mass at seven o'clock.

There was really nothing to get up for now. Maciek had long ago finished the spring-work in the fields; the Jews had left the village, carrying their business farther afield, following the new railway line now under construction, and no one sent for him from the manor--for there was no manor. He smoked, strolled about for days together in the yard, or looked at the abundantly sprouting corn. His favourite pastime, however, was to watch the Germans, whose habitations were shooting up like mushrooms.

By the end of May Hamer and two or three others had finished building, and their gospodarstwos were pleasant to look at. They resembled each other like drops of water; each one stood in the middle of its fields,
the garden was by the roadside, shut off by a wooden fence; the house, roughcast, consisted of four large rooms, and behind it was a good- sized square of farm-buildings.

All the buildings were larger and loftier than those of the Polish peasants, and were clean and comfortable, although they looked stiff and severe; for while the roofs of the Polish gospodarstwos overhung on the four sides, those of the Germans did so only at the front and back.

But they had large windows, divided into six squares, and the doors were made by the carpenter. Jendrek, who daily ran over to the settlement reported that there were wooden floors, and that the kitchen was a separate room with an iron-plated stove.

Slimak sometimes dreamt that he would build a place like that, only with a different roof. Then he would jump up, because he felt he ought to go somewhere and do work, for he was bored and ashamed of idling; at times he would long for the manor-fields over which he had guided the plough, where the settlement now stood. Then a great fear would seize him that he would be powerless when the Germans, who had felled forests, shattered rocks and driven away the squire, should start on him in earnest.

But he always reassured himself. He had been neighbours with them now for two months and they had done him no harm. They worked quietly, minded their cattle so that they should not stray, and even their children were not troublesome, but went to school at Hamer's house, where the infirm schoolmaster kept them in order.

'They are respectable people,' he satisfied himself. 'I'm better off with them than with the squire.'

He was, for they bought from him and paid well. In less than a month he had taken a hundred roubles from them; at the manor this had meant a whole year's toil.

'Do you think, Josef, that the Germans will always go on buying from you?' his wife asked from time to time. 'They have their own gospodarstwos now, and better ones than yours; you will see, it will last through the summer at the best, and after that they won't buy a stick from us.'

'We shall see,' said the peasant.

He was secretly counting on the advantages which he would reap from the building of the new line; had not the engineer promised him this? He even laid in provisions with this object, having to go farther afield, for the peasants in the village would no longer sell him anything.

But he soon realized that prices had risen; the Germans had long ago scoured the neighbourhood and bought without bargaining.

Once he met Josel who, instead of smiling maliciously at him as usual, asked him to enter into a business transaction with him.

'What sort of business?' asked Slimak.

'Build a cottage on your land for my brother-in-law.'

'What for?'

'He wants to set up a shop and deal with the railway people, else the Germans will take away all the business from under our noses.'

Slimak reflected.

'No, I don't want a Jew on my land,' he said. 'I shouldn't be the first to be eaten up by you longcurls.'

'You don't want to live with a Jew, but you are not afraid to pray with the Germans,' said the Jew, pale with anger.

Slimak was made to feel the profound unpopularity he had incurred in the village. At church on Sundays hardly anyone answered him 'In Eternity', and when he passed a group he would hear loud talk of heresy, and God's judgment which would follow.

He therefore ordered a Mass one Sunday, on the advice of his wife, and went to confession with her and Jendrek; but this did not improve matters, for the villagers discussed over their beer in the evening what deadly sin he might have been guilty of to go to confession and pray so fervently.

Even old Sobieska rarely appeared and came furtively to ask for her vodka. Once, when her tongue was loosened, she said: 'They say you have turned into a Lutheran...It's true,' she added, 'there is only one
merciful God, still, the Germans are a filthy thing!'

The Germans now began mysteriously to disappear with their carts at dawn of day, carrying large quantities of provisions with them. Slimak investigated this matter, getting up early himself. Soon he saw a tiny
yellow speck in the direction which they had taken. It grew larger towards evening, and he became convinced that it was the approaching railway line.

'The scoundrels!' he said to his wife, 'they've been keeping this secret so as to steal a march on me, but I shall drive over.'

'Well, look sharp!' cried his wife; 'those railway people were to have been our best customers.'

He promised to go next day, but overslept himself, and Slimakowa barely succeeded in driving him off the day after.

He gathered some information on the way from the peasants. Many of them had volunteered for work, but only a few had been taken on, and those had soon returned, tired out.

'It's dogs' work, not men's,' they told him; 'yet it might be worth your while taking the horses, for carters earn four roubles a day.'

'Four roubles a day!' thought Slimak, laying on to the horses.

He drove on smartly and soon came alongside the great mounds of clay on which strangers were at work, huge, strong, bearded men, wheeling largebarrows. Slimak could not wonder enough at their strength and industry.

'Certainly, none of our men would do this,' he thought.

No one paid any attention to him or spoke to him. At last two Jews caught sight of him and one asked: 'What do you want, gospodarz?' The embarrassed peasant twisted his cap in his hands.

'I came to ask whether the gentlemen wanted any barley or lard?'

'My dear man,' said the Jew, 'we have our regular contractors; a nice mess we should be in, if we had to buy every sack of barley from the peasants!'

'They must be great people,' thought Slimak, 'they won't buy from the peasants, they must be buying from the gentry.'

So he bowed to the ground before the Jew, who was on the point of walking away.

'I entreat the favour of being allowed to cart for the gentlemen.'

This humility pleased the Jew.

'Go over there, my dear fellow,' he said, 'perhaps they will take you on.'

Slimak bowed again and made his way through the crowd with difficulty. Among other carts he saw those of the settlers.

Fritz Hamer came forward to meet him; he seemed to be in a position of some authority there.

'What do you want?' he asked.

'I want a job too.' The settler frowned.

'You won't get one here!'

Seeing that Slimak was looking round, he went to the inspector and spoke to him.

'No work for carters,' the latter at once shouted, 'no work! As it is we have too many, you are only getting in people's way. Be off!' The brutal way in which this order was given so bewildered the peasant that, in turning, he almost upset his cart; he drove off at full speed, feeling as if he had offended some great power which had worked enough destruction already and was now turning hills into valleys and valleys into hills.

But gradually he reflected more calmly. People from the village had been taken on, and he remembered seeing peasants' carts at the embankment. Why had he been driven away?

It was quite clear that some one wished to shut him out.

'Curse the Judases, they're outdoing the Jews,' he muttered and felt a horror of the Germans for the first time.

He told his wife briefly that there was no work, and betook himself to the settlement. Old Hamer seemed to be in the middle of a heated argument with Hirschgold and two other men. When he caught sight of the peasant he took them into the barn.

'Sly dog,' murmured Slimak; 'he knows what I've come for. I'll tell him straight to his face when he comes out.'

But at every step his courage failed him more and more. He hesitated between his desire to turn back and his unwillingness to lose a job; he hung about the fences, and looked at the women digging in their gardens. A murmur like the hum of a beehive caught his ears: one of the windows in Hamer's house was open and he looked into a schoolroom.

One of the children was reciting something in a clamorous voice, the others were talking under their breath. The schoolmaster was standing in the middle of the room, calling out 'Silence!' from time to time.

When he saw Slimak, he beckoned to his daughter to take his place, and the hubbub of voices increased. Slimak watched her trying to cope with the children.

The schoolmaster came up behind him, walking heavily.

'Did you come to see how we teach our children?' he asked, smilingly.

'Nothing of the kind,' said Slimak; 'I've come to tell Hamer that he is a scoundrel.' He related his experience.

'What have I done?' he asked. 'Soon I may not be able to earn anything; is one to starve because it pleases them?'

'The truth is,' said the schoolmaster, 'that you are a thorn in their flesh.'

'Why?'

'Your land is right in the middle of Hamer's fields and that spoils his farm, but that is not the reason as much as your hill; he wants it for a windmill. They have nothing but level ground; it's the best land in the settlement, but no good for a windmill; if they don't put it up, one of the other settlers will.'

'And why are they so crazy after a windmill?'

'Well, it matters a great deal to them; if Wilhelm had a windmill he could marry Miller Knap's daughter from Wolka and get a thousand and twenty roubles with her; the Hamers may go bankrupt without that money.
That's why you stick in their throats. If you sold them your land they would pay you well.'

'And I won't sell! I will neither help them to stay here nor do myself harm for their benefit; when a man leaves the land of his fathers...'

'There will be trouble,' the schoolmaster said earnestly.

'Then let there be; I won't die because it pleases them.'

Slimak returned home without any further wish to see Hamer; he knew there could be no understanding between them.

Maciek had discovered at dawn one morning that a crowd had reached the river-bank by the ravines, and Slimak, hurrying thither, found some gospodarze from the village among the men.

'What is happening?'

'They are going to throw up a dam and build a bridge across the Bialka,' Wisniewski replied.

'And what are you doing here?'

'We have been taken on to cart sand.'

Slimak discovered the Hamers in the crowd.

'Nice neighbours you are!' he said bitterly, going up to them. 'Here you are sending all the way to the village for carts, and you won't let me have a job.'

'We will send for you when you are living in the village,' Fritz answered, and turned his back.

An elderly gentleman was standing near them, and Slimak turned to him and took off his cap.

'Is this justice, sir?' he said. 'The Germans are getting rich on the railway, and I don't earn a kopek. Last year two gentlemen came and promised that I should make a lot of money. Well, your honours are building the railway now, but I've never yet taken my horses out of the stable. A German with thirty acres of ground is having a good job, and I have only ten acres and a wife and children to keep, as well as the farmhand and the girl. We shall have to starve, and it's all because the Germans have a grudge against me.'

He had spoken rapidly and breathlessly, and after a moment of surprise the old man turned to Fritz Hamer.

'Why did you not take him on?'

Fritz looked insolently at him.

'Is it you who has to answer for the cartage or I? Will you pay my fines when the men fail me? I take on those whom I can trust.'

The old man bit his lip, but did not reply.

'I can't help you, my brother,' he said; 'you shall drive me as often as I come to this neighbourhood. It isn't much, but every little helps. Where do you live?'

Slimak pointed to his cottage; he was longing to speak further, but the old man turned to give some orders, and the peasant could only embrace
his knees.

Old Hamer waylaid him on the way back.

'Do you see now how badly you have done for yourself? You will do even worse, for Fritz is furious.'

'God is greater than Fritz.'

'Will you take seventy-five roubles an acre and settle on the other side of the Bug? You will have twice as much land.'

'I would not go to the other side of the Bug for double the money; you go, if you like!'

When the angry men were looking back at each other, the one was standing with a stubborn face, his pipe between his clenched teeth, the other with folded arms, smiling sadly. Each was afraid of the other.

The embankment was growing slowly from west to east. Before long thousands of carriages would roll along its line with the speed of birds, to enrich the powerful, shatter the poor, spread new customs and manners, multiply crime...all this is called 'the advancement of civilization'. But Slimak knew nothing of civilization and its boons, and therefore looked upon this outcome of it as ominous. The encroaching line seemed to him like the tongue of some vast reptile, and the mounds of earth to forebode four graves, his own and those of his wife and children.

Maciek also had been watching its progress, which he considered an entire revolution of the laws of nature.

'It's a monstrous thing', he said, 'to heap up so much sand on the fields near the river, and narrow the bed; when the Bialka swells, it will overflow.'

Slimak saw that the ends of the embankment were touching the river, but as they had been strengthened by brick walls he took no alarm. Nevertheless, it struck him that the Hamers were hurriedly throwing up
dams on their fields in the lower places.

'Quick folk!' he thought, and contemplated doing the same, and strengthening the dams with hurdles, as soon as he had cut the hay. It occurred to him that he might do it now when he had plenty of time, but, as usual, it remained a good intention.

It was the beginning of July, when the hay had been cut and people were gradually preparing for the harvest. Slimak had stacked his hay in the backyard, but the Germans were still driving in stakes and throwing up
dams.

The summer of that year was remarkable for great heat; the bees swarmed, the corn was ripening fast, the Bialka was shallower than usual, and three of the workmen died of sunstroke. Experienced farmers feared either prolonged rain during the harvest or hail before long. One day the storm came.

The morning had been hot and sultry, the birds did not sing, the pigs refused to eat and hid in the shade behind the farmbuildings; the wind rose and fell, it blew now hot and dry, now cool and damp. By about ten
o'clock a large part of the sky was lined with heavy clouds, shading from ashen-grey into iron-colour and perfect black; at times this sooty mass, seeking an outlet upon the earth, burst asunder, revealing a sinister light through the crevices. Then again the clouds lowered themselves and drowned the tops of the forest trees in mists. But a hot wind soon drove them upwards again and tore strips off them, so that they hung ragged over the fields.

Suddenly a fiery cloud appeared behind the village church; it seemed to be flying at full speed along the railway embankment, driven by the west wind; at the same time the north wind sprang up and buffeted it
from the side; dust flew up from the highroads and sandhills, and the clouds began to growl.

When they heard the sound, the workmen left their tools and barrows, and filed away in two long  etachments, one to the manor-house, the other to their huts. The peasants and settlers turned the sand out of
their carts with all speed and galloped home. The cattle were driven in from the fields, the women left their gardens; every place became deserted.

Thunderclap after thunderclap announced ever-fresh legions pressing into the sky and obscuring the sun. It seemed as if the earth were cowering in their presence, as a partridge cowers before the hovering hawk. The blackthorn and juniper bushes called to caution with a low, swishing noise; the troubled dust hid in the corn, where the young ears whispered to each other; the distant forests murmured.

High above, in the overcharged clouds, an evil force, with strong desire to emulate the Creator, was labouring. It took the limp element and formed an island, but before it had time to say, 'It is good', the wind had blown the island away. It raised a gigantic mountain, but before the summit had crowned it, the base had been blown from underneath. Now it created a lion, now a huge bird, but soon only torn wings and a shapeless torso dissolved into darkness. Then, seeing thatthe works fashioned by the eternal hands endured, and that its own phantom creations could not resist even the feeblest wind, the evil spirit was seized with a great anger and determined to destroy the earth.

It sent a flash into the river, then thundered, 'Strike those fieldswith hail! drench the hill!' And the obedient clouds flung themselves down. The wind whistled the reveille, the rain beat the drum; like hounds released from the leash the clouds bounded forward...downward, following the direction to which the flashes of lightning pointed. The evil spirit had put out the sun.

After an hour's downpour the exhausted storm calmed down, and now the roar of the Bialka could be distinctly heard. It had broken down the banks, flooded the highroad and fields with dirty water and formed a
lake beyond the sandhills of the railway embankment.

Soon, however, the storm had gathered fresh strength, the darkness increased, lightning seemed to flash from all parts of the horizon; perpendicular torrents of rain drowned the earth in sheets of mist. The inmates of Slimak's cottage had gathered in the front room; Maciek sat yawning on a corner of the bench, Magda, beside him, nursed the baby, singing to it in a low voice; Slimakowa was vexed that the storm was putting the fire out; Slimak was looking out of the window, thinking of his crops. Jendrek was the only cheerful one; he ran out from time to time, wetting himself to the skin, and tried to induce his brother or Magda to join him in these excursions.

'Come, Stasiek,' he cried, pulling him by the hand, 'it's such a warm rain, it will wash you and cheer you up.'

'Leave him alone,' said his father; 'he is peevish.'

'And don't run out yourself,' added his mother, 'you are flooding the whole room.... The Word was made Flesh,' she added under her breath, as a terrific clap of thunder shook the house. Magda crossed herself; Jendrek laughed and cried, 'What a din! there's another.... The Lord Jesus is enjoying Himself, firing off....'

'Be quiet, you silly,' called his mother; 'it may strike you!'

'Let it strike!' laughed the boy boldly. 'They'll take me into the army and shoot at me, but I don't mind!' He ran out again.

'The rascal! he isn't afraid of anything,' Slimakowa said to her husband with pride in her voice. Slimak shrugged his shoulders.

'He's a true peasant.'

Yet among that group of people with iron nerves there was one who felt all the terror of this upheaval of the elements. How was it that Stasiek, a peasant child, was so sensitive?

Like the birds he had felt the coming storm, had roamed about restlessly and watched the clouds, fancying that they were taking council together, and he guessed that their intentions were evil. He felt the pain of the beaten-down grass and shivered at the thought of the earth being chilled under sheets of water. The electricity in the air made his flesh tingle, the lightning dazzled him, and each clap of thunder was like a blow on his head. It was not that he was afraid of the storm, but he suffered under it, and his suffering spirit pondered.
'Why and whence do such terrible things come?'

He wandered from the room to the alcove, from the alcove to the room, as if he had lost his way, gazed absently out of the window and lay down on the bench, feeling all the more miserable because no one took
any notice of him.

He wanted to talk to Maciek, but he was asleep; he tried Magda and found her absorbed in the baby; he was afraid of Jendrek's dragging him out of doors if he spoke to him. At last he clung to his mother, but she was cross because of the fire and pushed him away.

'A likely thing I should amuse you, when the dinner is being spoilt!' He roamed about again, then leant against his father's knee.

'Daddy,' he said in a low voice, 'why is the storm so bad?'

'Who knows?'

'Is God doing it?'

'It must be God.'

Stasiek began to feel a little more cheerful, but his father happened to shift his position, and the child thought he had been pushed away again. He crept under the bench where Burek lay, and although the dog was soaking wet, he pressed close to him and laid his head on the faithful creature.

Unluckily his mother caught sight of him.

'Whatever's the matter with the boy?' she cried. 'Just you come away from there, or the lightning will strike you! Out into the passage, Burek!'

She looked for a piece of wood, and the dog crept out with his tail between his legs. Stasiek was left again to his restlessness, alone in a roomful of people. Even his mother was now struck by his miserable face and gave him a piece of bread to comfort him. He bit off a mouthful, but could not swallow it and burst into tears.

'Good gracious, Stasiek, what's the matter? Are you frightened?'

'No.'

'Then why are you so queer?'

'It hurts me here,' he said, pointing to his chest.

Slimak, who was depressed himself, thinking of his harvest, drew him to his knee, saying: 'Don't worry! God may destroy our crop, but we won't starve all the same. He is the smallest, and yet he has more sense than
the others,' he said, turning to his wife; 'he's worrying about the gospodarstwo.'

Gradually, as the storm abated, the roar of the river struck them afresh. Slimak quickly drew on his boots.

'Where are you going?' asked his wife.

'Something's wrong outside.'

He went and returned breathlessly.

'I say! It's just as I thought.'

'Is it the corn?'

'No, that hasn't suffered much, but the dam is broken.'

'Jesus! Jesus!'

'The water is up to our yard. Those scoundrel Swabians have dammed up
their fields, and that has taken some more off the hill.'

'Curse them!'

'Have you looked into the stable?' asked Maciek.

'Is it likely I shouldn't? There's water in the stable, water in the cowshed, look! even the passage is flooded; but the rain is stopping, we must bale out.'

'And the hay?'

'That will dry again if God gives fine weather.'

Soon the entire household were baling in the house and farm-buildings; the fire was burning brightly, and the sun peeped out from behind the clouds.

On the other bank of the river the Germans were at work. Barelegged, and armed with long poles, they waded carefully through the flooded fields towards the river to catch the drifting logs.

Stasiek was calming down; he was not tingling all over now. From time to time he still fancied he heard the thunder, and strained his ears, but it was only the noise of the others baling with wooden grain measures. There was much commotion in the passage where Jendrek pushed Magda about instead of baling.

'Steady there,' cried his mother, 'when I get hold of something hard I'll beat you black and blue!'

But Jendrek laughed, for he could tell by a shade in her voice that she was no longer cross.

Courage returned to Stasiek's heart. Supposing he were to peep out into the yard... would there still be a terrible black cloud? Why not try? He put his head out of the back door and saw the blue sky flecked with
little white clouds hurrying eastwards. The cock was flapping his wings and crowing, heavy drops were sparkling on the bushes, golden streaks of sunlight penetrated into the passage, and bright reflections from
the surface of the waters beckoned to him.

He flew out joyfully through the pools of water, delighting in the rainbow-coloured sheaves that were spurting from under his feet; he stood on a plank and punted himself along with a stick, pretending that he was sailing in deep water.

'Come, Jendrek!' he called.

'Stop here and go on baling,' called out Slimakowa.

The Germans were still busy landing wood; whenever they got hold of a specially large piece they shouted 'Hurrah!' Suddenly some big logs came floating down, and this raised their enthusiasm to such a pitch
that they started singing the 'Wacht am Rhein'. For the first time in his life Stasiek, who was so sensitive to music, heard a men's chorus sung in parts. It seemed to melt into one with the bright sun; both intoxicated him; he forgot where he was and what he was doing, he stood petrified. Waves seemed to be floating towards him from the river, embracing and caressing him with invisible arms, drawing him irresistibly. He wanted to turn towards the house or call Jendrek, but he could only move forward, slowly, as in a dream, then
faster...faster; he ran, and disappeared down the hill.

The men were singing the third verse of the 'Wacht am Rhein', when they suddenly stopped and shouted:

'Help...help!'

Slimak and Maciek had stopped in their work to listen to the singing; the sudden cries surprised them, but it was the labourer who was seized with apprehension.

'Run, gospodarz,' he said; 'something's up.'

'Eh! something they have taken into their heads!'

'Help!' the cry rose again.

'Never mind, run, gospodarz,' the man urged; 'I can't keep up with you, and something....'

Slimak ran towards the river, and Maciek painfully dragged himself after him. Jendrek overtook him.

'What's up? Where is Stasiek?'

Maciek stopped and heard a powerful voice calling out:

'That's the way you look after your children, Polish beasts!'

Then Slimak appeared on the hill, holding Stasiek in his arms. The boy's head was resting on his shoulder, his right arm hung limply. Dirty water was flowing from them both. Slimak's lips were livid, his eyes wide open. Jendrek ran towards him, slipped on the boggy hillside, scrambled up and shouted in terror: 'Daddy...Stasiek...what....'

'He's drowned!'

'You are mad,' cried the boy; 'he's sitting on your arm!'

He pulled Stasiek by the shirt, and the boy's head fell over his father's shoulder.

'You see!' whispered Slimak.

'But he was in the backyard a minute ago.'

Slimak did not answer, he supported Stasiek's head and stumbled forward.

Slimakowa was standing in the passage, shading her eyes and waiting.

'Well, what has he been up to now?... What's this? Has it fallen on Stasiek again? Curse those Swabians and their singing!'

She went up to the boy and, taking his hand, said in a trembling voice:

'Never mind, Stasiek, don't roll your eyes like that, never mind! Come to your senses, I won't scold you. Magda, fetch some water.'

'He has had more than enough water,' murmured Slimak.

The woman started back.

'What's the matter with him? Why is he so wet?'

'I have taken him out of the pool by the river.'

'That little pool?'

'The water was only up to my waist, but it did for him.'

'Then why don't you turn him upside down? Maciek, take him by the feet...oh, you clumsy fellows!'

The labourer did not stir. She seized the boy herself by the legs.

Stasiek struck the ground heavily with his hands; a little blood ran from his nose.

Maciek took the child from her and carried him into the cottage, where he laid him down on the bench. They all followed him except Magda, who ran aimlessly round the yard and then, with outstretched arms, on to
the highroad, crying: 'Help...help, if you believe in God!' She returned to the cottage, but dared not go in, crouched on the threshold with her head on her knees, groaning: 'Help...if you believe in God.'

Slimak dashed into the alcove, put on his sukmana and ran out, he did not know whither; he felt he must run somewhere.

A voice seemed to cry to him: 'Father...father...if you had put up a fence, your child would not have been drowned!'

And the man answered: 'It is not my fault; the Germans bewitched him with their singing.'

A cart was heard rattling on the highroad and stopped in front of the cottage. The schoolmaster got out, bareheaded and with his rod in his hand. 'How is the boy?' he called out, but did not wait for an answer
and limped into the cottage.

Stasiek was lying on the bench, his mother was supporting his head on her knees and whispering to herself: 'He's coming to, he's a little warmer.'

The schoolmaster nudged Maciek: 'How is he?'

'What do I know? She says he's better, but the boy doesn't move, no, he doesn't move.'

The schoolmaster went up to the boy and told his mother to make room. She got up obediently and watched the old man breathlessly, with open mouth, sobbing now and then. Slimak peeped through the open window from time to time, but he was unable to bear the sight of his child's pale face. The schoolmaster stripped the wet clothes off the little body and slowly raised and lowered his arms. There was silence while the others
watched him, until Slimakowa, unable to contain herself any longer, pulled her hair down and then struck her head against the wall.

'Oh, why were you ever born?' she moaned, 'a child of gold! He recovered from all his illnesses and now he is drowned.... Merciful God! why dost Thou punish me so? Drowned like a puppy in a muddy pool, and no one to help!'

She sank down on her knees, while the schoolmaster persevered for half an hour, listening for the beating of the child's heart from time to time, but no sign of life appeared and, seeing that he could do no more, he covered the child's body with a cloth, silently said a prayer and went out. Maciek followed him.

In the yard he came upon Slimak; he looked like a drunken man.

'What have you come here for, schoolmaster?' he choked. 'Haven't you done us enough harm? You've killed my child with your singing...do you want to destroy his soul too as it is leaving him, or do you mean to bring a curse on the rest of us?'

'What is that you are saying?' said the schoolmaster in amazement.

The peasant stretched his arms and gasped for breath.

'Forgive me, sir,' he said, 'I know you are a good man.... God reward you,' he kissed his hand; 'but my Stasiek died through your fault all the same: you bewitched him.'

'Man!' cried the schoolmaster, 'are we not Christians like you? Do we not put away Satan and his deeds as you do?'

'But how was it he got drowned?'

'How do I know? He may have slipped.'

'But the water was so shallow he might have scrambled out, only your singing...that was the second time it bewitched him so that something fell on him...isn't it true, Maciek?'

The labourer nodded.

'Did the boy have fits?' asked the schoolmaster.

'Never.'

'And has he never been ill?'

'Never.'

Maciek shook his head. 'He's been ill since the winter.'

'Eh?' asked Slimak.

'I'm speaking the truth; Stasiek has been ill ever since he took a cold; he couldn't run without getting out of breath; once I saw it fall upon him while I was ploughing. I had to go and bring him round.'

'Why did you never say anything about it?'

'I did tell the gospodyni, but she told me to mind my own business and not to talk like a barber.'

'Well, you see,' said the schoolmaster, the boy was suffering from a weak heart and that killed him; he would have died young in any case.'

Slimak listened eagerly, and his consciousness seemed to return.

'Could it be that?' he murmured. 'Did the boy die a natural death?'

He tapped at the window and the woman came out, rubbing her swollen eyes.

'Why didn't you tell me that Stasiek had been ill since the winter, and couldn't run without feeling queer?'

'Of course he wasn't well,' she said; 'but what good could you have done?'

'I couldn't have done anything, for if he was to die, he was to die.'

The mother cried quietly.

'No, he couldn't escape; if he was to die he was to die; he must have felt it coming to-day during the storm, when he went about clinging to everyone...if only it had entered my head not to let him out of my sight... if I had only locked him up....'

'If his hour had come, he would have died in the cottage,' said the schoolmaster, departing.

Already resignation was entering into the hearts of those who mourned for Stasiek. They comforted each other, saying that no hair falls from our heads without God's will.

'Not even the wild beasts die unless it is God's will,' said Slimak: 'a hare may be shot at and escape, and then die in the open field, so that you can catch it with your hands.'

'Take my case,' said Maciek: 'the cart crushed me and they took me to the hospital, and here I am alive; but when my hour has struck I shall die, even if I were to hide under the altar. So it was with Stasiek.'

'My little one, my comfort!' sobbed the mother.

'Well, he wouldn't have been much comfort,' said Slimak; 'he couldn't have done heavy farm work.' 'Oh, no!' put in Maciek.

'Or handled the beasts.'

'Oh, no!'

'He would never have made a peasant; he was such a peculiar child, he didn't care for farm work; all he cared for was roaming about and gazing into the river.'

'Yes, and he would talk to the grass and the birds, I have heard it myself,' said Maciek, 'and many times have I thought: "Poor thing! what will you do when you grow up? You'd be a queer fish even among gentlefolk, but what will it be like for you among the peasants?"'

In the evening Slimak carried Stasiek on to the bed in the alcove; his mother laid two copper coins on his eyes and lit the candle in front of the Madonna.

They put down straw in the room, but neither of them could sleep; Burek howled all night, Magda was feverish; Jendrek continually raised himself from the straw, for he fancied his brother had moved. But Stasiek did not move.

In the morning Slimak made a little coffin; carpentering came so easily to him that he could not help smiling contentedly at his own work now and then. But when he remembered what he was doing, he was seized with
such passionate grief that he threw down his tools and ran out, he knew not whither.

On the third day Maciek harnessed the horses to the cart, and they drove to the village church, Jendrek keeping close to the coffin and steadying it, so that it should not rock. He even tapped, and listened if his brother were not calling.

But Stasiek was silent. He was silent when they drove to the church, silent when the priest sprinkled holy water on him, silent when they took him to his grave and his father helped the gravedigger to lower him, and when they threw clods of earth upon him and left him alone for the first time.

Even Maciek burst into tears. Slimak hid his face in his sukmana like a Roman senator and would not let his grief be looked upon.

And a voice in his heart whispered: 'Father! father! if you had made a fence, your child would not have been drowned!'

But he answered: 'I am not guilty; he died because his hour had come.'

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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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