Translated by Christopher Zakrzewski
Lithuania! My homeland! You are like health. Only those who forfeit you can fitly judge your price. Now that I grieve your loss, I see and show your beauty forth in all its splendor.
Holy Virgin! You, who defend Częstochowa’s bright hill! Light of Ostra Brama! Guardian of Nowogródek’s walls and pious townsfolk! As once in my boyhood you wondrously restored me to life (no sooner had my sobbing mother confided me to your care than I opened my lifeless eyes and, walking unaided to your holy shrine, offered prayers of thanksgiving to God); so by a wondrous sign will you restore us to the bosom of our land. Until that day comes, bear my aching heart to those timbered hills and sprawling green meadows drained by the blue Niemen. Bear it away to that patchwork of fields stippled with golden wheat and silver rye, where the flowering rape glows amber-yellow, the buckwheat shimmers like snow, the white clover mantles like a maiden’s cheek; and all this banded by the green hem of the balks and the solitary pears that grow there.
Years ago, in the midst of these fields, tucked away in a grove of birches overlooking a little brook, there was a manor house. Though built of wood, it stood on solid underpinnings. Seen from a distance, its lime-daubed walls shone the brighter against the screen of dark-green poplars that kept the autumn winds at bay. While none too large, the house was spruce and trim. There was a mighty straw-roofed barn with three surplus haystacks standing beside it; clearly the region abounded in cereal grain. From the number of glistening stooks that studded the fields like a grid of stars; from the number of plows that in the early morning hours turned up the vast tracts of black loam lying in fallow (clearly all this belonged to the domain, and all well tended like a garden plot)—from all this, you could tell that order and plenty made their dwelling here. The gate stood fastened back: a clear sign to all passers-by that the house was neighborly and welcomed all with open arms.
Just now a young gentleman drove in, swung his britzka and pair round the courtyard, backed up to the veranda door, and jumped out. Left unattended, the horses began to nip at the grass and stray off in the direction of the gate. There was no sign of life in the house. The veranda door was closed shut. The hasp had been passed over the staples and secured by a peg. Rather than seek help at the servants’ annex, the traveler unfastened the door himself and burst inside; such was his yearning to see the house. He had been away a good many years finishing his studies in the city; now at long last he was back. Casting eager eyes over the ancient walls, he greeted them fondly, like dear old friends. The same tapestries and furnishings had amused him as a babe-in-arms; true, they seemed somewhat smaller now, not quite as lovely.
The same oils still hung on the walls. Here, sword raised in both hands, eyes tilted heavenward, stood Kościuszko in his Cracow coat. Such was the attitude he struck when, standing on the altar steps, he swore an oath to rid our land of the three great powers or, failing this, to cast himself upon his sword. There, draped in a Polish robe, sat Rejtan, brooding over his nation’s loss of freedom. He holds a dagger poised at his heart. Before him lie Phaedo and Cato’s Life. Farther down hung a tableau depicting the youthful Jasiński. Sorrow mars his comely face. Together with his faithful companion Korsak, he stands atop a barricade, hewing down the Muscovites. The bodies of the slain lie heaped at their feet, and all around them Praga burns. Not even the old grandfather’s clock in the alcove entrance escaped the traveler’s notice. With child-like joy he pulled the cord to hear the old Dąbrowski mazurka strike up again.
On through the house he ran, seeking out his old room of ten years ago. No sooner did he find it than he drew back. He gazed at the walls in wonder. Clearly a woman’s apartment! But whose? His uncle was an old bachelor, and his aunt had been living in Saint Petersburg for years. The housekeeper’s? But here was a grand piano. Books and music scores lay strewn over it, all in careless disorder. Sweet disarray! Tender the hands that wrought it! A white frock, fresh off the peg, lay draped over an arm of a chair. Fragrant pots of aster, geranium, violet, and gillyflower stood ranged along the sills.
The traveler drew up at one of the windows. Another wonder! Where once stinging nettle had rioted at the orchard’s edge there now lay a plot of flowerbeds and intersecting paths. Clumps of spearmint and ribbon grass sprouted in profusion. All around the garden ran a little fence fashioned out of uprights lashed together in a row of Vs. A bright band of daisies flickered along its base. The beds had just been sprinkled; a full watering can stood close by. Yet no sign of the gardener. She could not have gone far. The gate-leaf, nudged open but a moment ago, still trembled. Nearby, traced in the fine dry grains of sand as blank as snow, lay the dint of a dainty foot, bare of stocking and shoe. From the distinct yet shallow impression it made, you could tell the foot was nimble and light. Whoever ran that way had scarcely grazed the ground.
Long stood the traveler musing by the window. Filling his lungs with the flower-scented air, he took leisure to admire the view; then, leaning out over the clumps of violets below, he allowed his curious eyes to range over the garden paths. Several more dints in the sand arrested his gaze. The impressions intrigued him. Whose feet could have left them? Then, chancing to look up, he saw a girl on the fence just a short distance away. Her supple frame stood draped in a white chemise from the bosom down; her arms and swan-like neck were bare. Only in the morning hours do young women in Lithuania disport themselves like this, and never with men present. Even alone as she stood, she held both arms folded over her bosom, as if supplying the wanting cover. Her hair, tightly wound in curl papers, was a mass of little knots resembling tiny white pods. A curious headdress this: for it shimmered in the sunlight like a saintly nimbus.
Her face eluded the eye of the youth. She was facing the other way, clearly seeking someone out in the fields below; espying whom, she clapped her hands and gave out a peal of laughter. Down she leapt from the fence. Skimming the sward like a white bird, she threaded the garden rails, cleared the beds, darted up the plank that stood propped against the window ledge and, light as a moonbeam, noiseless, and fleet, burst into the room even before the caller had time to take notice. Trilling softly to herself, she seized her frock, flew to the mirror, and only then laid eyes on the lad. The dress fell from her hand. She paled with fright and surprise. The traveler blushed like a cloud meeting the rising sun. Blinking his eyes modestly, he covered his face with his hand and groped for a word of apology; but then he merely bowed and drew back. Like a small child startled in its sleep, the girl uttered a faint and painful cry. Alarmed, the youth looked up, but she had already fled. Confused, his heart pounding in his ears, he made himself scarce, wondering if this strange encounter should cause him shame, amusement, or sheer delight.
Meanwhile, the arrival of a new guest had not escaped notice at the servants’ annex. Already the horses stood in the stalls; already they crunched on the rich provender of oats and hay that every decent country house provides. The Judge deplored the new fad of stabling the horses of visiting guests at the Jewish inn. True, his servants had not been at hand to greet the caller; but it would be wrong to suppose that his domestic service was slack. All this time the servants had been waiting for the Chief Steward to dress. The Steward, who had been busy with the banquet preparations at the rear of the house, stood in for the lord of the manor. No one but he—the Judge’s distant kinsman and friend of the household—greeted and minded the guests. On catching sight of the guest, he had stolen back to the annex (he could scarcely receive callers in his homespun caftan) and slipped on the Sunday suit he had laid out that morning in anticipation of the large party of dinner guests expected that evening.
The Steward recognized the youth from a distance. Uttering a shout, he flung out his arms, fell on his neck, and saluted him. There followed that confused and rapid discourse which strives in a welter of brief phrases to relate the events of many years: tales begun, then cut short by queries, shouts, and sighs—then a fresh round of hugs. At last, after satisfying his curiosity on many points, the Steward advised the youth of the day’s events.
“You have hit on a good day, Tadeusz!” he said, for this was the youth’s name (he had been christened after Kościuszko in remembrance of the year of war in which he had been born). “Yes, Tadeusz, my boy! You know just when to come: when the young ladies abound. Your uncle has plans to pick a bride for you soon; and he has a bevy to choose from. For days the neighbors have been arriving in droves to hear the boundary court settle our long-standing dispute with the Count. We expect him to ride up tomorrow. The Chamberlain, his wife, and daughters have already arrived. Our youth are busy shooting game in the forest. The elders and womenfolk went with them to inspect the harvesting in the fields nearby. By now they should be waiting for the youth. Come, we’ll walk down if you like. In a brace of shakes we shall meet your uncle, the Chamberlain, his wife, daughters, and the rest of the ladyships.”
The Chief Steward and Tadeusz took the road to the forest. They talked the whole way down and still never ran out of things to say. By now the sun had crossed to the farthest reaches of the sky. Less brilliant, though casting a broader light, the orb glowed with the hale ruddiness of a plowman retiring home to his rest. The flaming ball settled over the forest. A dim mist arose, thickening limb and crown, melding the trees into a single mass. Like a vast building the forest gloomed, the sun flaming over it as if the roof had been set ablaze. Suddenly the ball sank below, flashed among the trees like candlelight through the shutter slats, and went out. A moment later, the clanging unison of the reaping hooks fell silent; rakes ceased scraping the meads. This was just the way the Judge would have it. Work on his domain closed at sunset. “Our Good Lord knows best when to call it a day,” he was fond of saying. “When God’s laborer, the sun, retires from the sky, the farmer takes his cue and clears the fields.” These were his words; and to the honest overseer the Judge’s word was sacred. He saw to it that all the grain wagons, including the ones they had only begun to load, returned to the barn together. The oxen drawing the lighter burden frisked with delight.
The entire company was even now repairing home from the forest. Despite their buoyant spirits, they went in orderly array. Tutor and children led the train. Behind them walked the Judge and the Chamberlain’s wife. Off to their side came the Chamberlain, flanked by the rest of his kin. Next came the elders, followed closely by the young ladies and youth, the former half a step ahead of the latter, as decorum requires. There was no need to admonish them as to the proper order, no need to array the men and women; they instinctively knew their place. The Judge clung to the old ways. Age, family, rank, and good sense received their due respect or he knew the reason why. Such regimens were the life of great families and nations, he used to say. Without order, families and nations died out. And so the household had grown used to order’s rule, and anyone biding even the briefest time at the house, be he a relation, stranger, or visiting guest, soon imbibed the customs in which the house was steeped.
The Judge’s greeting was solemn and brief. He offered his hand to his nephew’s lips, kissed his brow, and saluted him courteously. Although he said little in the presence of his guests, it was plain from the way he dabbed his cheeks with the broad sleeve of his robe that he cared for Tadeusz deeply.
Homeward in the master’s steps followed every kind of grazing beast. From every field, pasturage, meadow, and wood they flocked. Bleating sheep thronged the road, raising clouds of dust. Behind them, brass bells clanking, ran a herd of Tyrolean heifers. Whinnying horses raced down from the freshly mown mead. All eagerly sought the well where the creaking sweep filled the water troughs to overflowing.
The Judge, though weary and beset by guests, did not shirk the onerous duties of the farm. Leaving their company, he walked down to the well. There is no time like the evening for the farmer to inspect his livestock. He never entrusts this task to his laborers, for—and the Judge knew this well—nothing so fattened the horse as the eye of the lord.
The Chief Steward and the Sergeant at Arms stood candle in hand at the manor door. They were having words, apparently at odds. Profiting from the Steward’s absence, Protazy had ordered the banquet table removed and installed in the ruins of the castle, which stood in plain view at the edge of the forest. Why this uncalled-for move? The Steward made a wry face and muttered his regrets. The Judge was stunned, but the deed was done, past remedy. Better to extend their apologies to the guests and escort them to the ruins. Off they went. All the while the Sergeant at Arms enlarged on his reasons for crossing the master’s plans. The house was too small to seat so large a company of distinguished guests. The castle hall was spacious, in good repair, its vault, intact. True, the walls were cracked and there was no glass in the windows, but who cared in the summertime! As as for the cellars, they were still within easy reach of the serving staff. On and on he rambled, tipping the Judge occasional winks. From the look on his face you could tell Protazy had weightier reasons in the back of his mind.
The castle stood two thousand paces from the house. It was a splendid pile, of imposing bulk—the hereditary seat of the Horeszkos. The last heir of this ancient clan had perished during the time of troubles. State seizures, careless trustees, and awards of court had reduced the domain to rack and ruin. A portion of the estate fell to distant relations on the distaff side. The remainder was divided among the creditors. No one cared to take the castle. None of the local gentry had the means to maintain it. But then, having come of age, the neighboring Count, a wealthy young squire distantly related to the Horeszkos, returned from his travels abroad and took a fancy to the castle walls. He made much of their Gothic lines even though the Judge showed him papers to prove that their builder was no Goth but an architect from Wilno. The Count’s show of interest in the castle was enough to set the Judge thinking along similar lines; no one knows why. They both laid claims at the zemstvo. The case went before the Senate. From there it worked its way back to the zemstvo, then went before the Governor’s Council. Finally, after great expense and a dozen decrees, the case landed right back in the boundary court.
The Sergeant at Arms was quite right in observing that the castle could seat all the barristers and invited guests. Ample as a refectory, the great hall had a sweeping vault supported by pillars, a stone-flagged floor, and trim, plain walls. Mounted stag and roebuck antlers stuck out all round. Engraved on each trophy were the hunters’ arms and the date and place where it had been won. The Horeszko Half-Goat emblazoned the vault.
The guests entered in orderly fashion and formed a circle around the table. The Chamberlain took the post of honor (it was the prerogative of his office and senior years). He bowed to the ladies, the elders, and youth. Beside him stood the Bernardine almsman and the Judge respectively. The priest recited a brief prayer in the Latin tongue; the men took vodka, and all sat down and fell to, silently dispatching the borscht, chilled Lithuanian-style.
Even though he was just a lad, Tadeusz shared the post of honor with the ladies and the Chamberlain. Between him and his uncle there stood an empty chair. It seemed to cry for an occupant. The Judge kept glancing at it, then at the door, as if expecting someone to enter at any moment. Tadeusz’s eyes followed his uncle’s, now flitting to the door, now alighting on the vacant seat. A remarkable thing: all around him sat young ladies at whom no prince would have turned up his nose. All were of gentle birth, young, and pretty; and yet here was Tadeusz staring at a seat that stood empty. The place was a riddle, but then youth is partial to a good riddle. Thus distracted, Tadeusz spoke scarcely a word to the Chamberlain’s comely daughter who sat at his side. He never once changed her plates or filled her wine goblet or sought to entertain the ladies with the courteous talk that table etiquette requires. The vacant chair held him spellbound; indeed, it stood empty no longer. His mind had filled it. A thousand guesses thronged around it. So do the frogs swarm over a solitary meadow after a rainburst: one figure rises above them, as when, on a sunny day, a white-browed lily breaks the surface of a lake.
In filed the servants with the third course. The Chamberlain decanted a few drops into Mistress Rose’s goblet then nudged a dish of salted cucumbers toward his youngest daughter.
“Though I am old and clumsy,” he sighed, “it appears I must wait on you, my dears.”
At once several youths sprang up to serve them. The Judge glanced at Tadeusz; then, arranging the sleeves of his robe and pouring himself a bumper of Hungarian wine, he intoned:
“These days it is the custom to send our youth to the city to study. I will not deny that our sons and grandsons surpass us elder-folk in book learning; yet I cannot help noticing that our youth are poorly schooled in the manners of polite society. In my day, young noblemen went for periods of training at the courts of lords. I myself spent ten years at the house of the Chamberlain’s father, the Royal Governor.” (Here the Judge squeezed the Chamberlain’s knee.) “It was he who groomed me to serve the public. Only when he had made a man of me did he let me go, and for this my house holds his memory dear. Every day I pray the Lord may grant him rest. True, I left his court to occupy myself with the tillage of our fields; yet even though I profited far less from his efforts than others worthier of his lordship’s grace (these later rose to our nation’s highest offices), no one here will find fault with my breeding and manners. I say this without hesitation. Courtesy is no easy art. Nor is it of small account, for there is more to it than showing a graceful leg or greeting every Tom, Dick, and Harry with a smile. Such newfangled ways may be suited to the merchant class, but they are not the ways of Old Poland—or the nobility.
“Everyone deserves respect; aye, but there are many kinds of respect. A father’s regard for his child is one kind of civility, a husband’s public esteem for his wife, another, and a master’s for his servant, still another. Polite conduct entails the drawing of distinctions! Much study is required to appraise a person correctly and accord him his due respect. Not even our elders exempted themselves from this learning. It was through polite discourse that our nobility passed on our nation’s living tradition. Through courteous talk our minor gentry caught up on the events of the district. We recognized a fellow gentleman by the simple fact that everyone knew him and treated him seriously. That is why our nobility have always safeguarded their manners. Today people no longer ask, ‘Who is he?’ ‘What is his family?’ ‘With whom has he lived?’ ‘What has he done?’ So long as he is not a government spy or a beggar, he enters wherever he pleases. As Emperor Vespasian was indifferent to the smell of his money (or the hand or place it came from), so no one pays attention to a person’s family or manners. It is enough that one have an air of importance and bear the stamp of validity. Thus people esteem their friends as the Jews value their coinage.”
The Judge regarded his guests one by one. Though he spoke with ease and argued his case well, he was aware that youth today lacked patience and found lengthy discourse tedious, no matter how eloquent. He need not have worried; they listened with rapt attention. He glanced at the Chamberlain for an approving sign. The Chamberlain forbore to break in, replying instead with frequent nods of his head. The Judge remained silent. At last, on receiving another nod, he topped up their goblets and resumed his theme.
“Now courtesy is no trifling matter. By learning to esteem others according to their years, family, manners, and qualities, we learn to respect ourselves. We gauge our weight by setting others on the opposite scale. But what is most deserving of your attention, gentlemen, is the courtesy a young man owes the fairer sex, especially when substance and a noble house enhance her natural grace and merits. This is the path to the heart’s affections; it paves the way to splendid alliances. That is what our elders thought, but then—”
He broke off; then, turning abruptly to Tadeusz, he shook his head and shot him a stern look; clearly, he had come to the point.
The Chamberlain rapped on his gilded snuffbox. “Come now, Judge,” he said. “In our time things were even worse. These days I cannot tell for certain if we elders have not changed with the times. Today’s youth may not be as bad as we think; anyhow, I see less scandal now. Oh, I recall when the mania for all things French first came to our land. Young fops from abroad fell upon us in hordes worse than the Nogai Tatars. They reviled God, the faith of our fathers, our laws and customs, and even our time-honored dress. What a deplorable sight they were: sallow-faced ninnies drawling through their noses (often they had no nose at all), armed with every manner of pamphlet and gazette, spouting newfangled religions, laws, and modes of dress. Those riffraff held our minds in thrall, for when God decides to chastise a nation he first divests her folk of their reason. The wiser among us lacked the courage to stand up to those fops. The whole nation feared them like a plague, for everyone felt the contagion’s lurking germ. We decried those dandies, yet still we aped them. We changed our faith, speech, laws, and dress. It was a masquerade, a mardi gras of license, swift on the heels of which came the season of Lent—enslavement!
“Although I was but a boy then, I remember the Cupbearer’s son pulling up in front of my father’s house in the Oszmiana district. He was the first in Lithuania to parade himself in the French fashion. People swarmed about him like swallows around a buzzard. The very sight of his two-wheeled chaise parked in front of a house (they called it a cabriolet in French) evoked universal envy. Instead of footmen, two small dogs sat perched on the boot. On the box sat a tall German valet, lean as a lath, with long thin shanks resembling hop-stakes. He wore silk stockings, low shoes with silver buckles, and a net over his hair, which was tied in a queue.
“Our elder-folk split their sides at the sight of that turnout. The rustics blessed themselves, swearing a Venetian devil was abroad in a German coach. As to the Cupbearer’s son, his appearance baffles description. Let us just say that he put us in mind of an ape or a parrot in an outlandish wig, which he likened to the Golden Fleece and we to a mangy mop. If any among us thought our Polish apparel better than aping foreign fashions, then we kept our own counsel for fear of arousing the youth, for they would shout us down as culture’s foes, impediments to progress, and traitors to our land. Such were prejudices that held sway in those times.
“The Cupbearer’s son declared his aim to refine our ways, to reform our system of rule and bring in a constitution. Certain articulate Frenchmen had made a discovery, he claimed. All men were created equal. Now, I say, has not Holy Writ always taught this? Doesn’t every parson proclaim it from the pulpit? The doctrine is old; its application, aye, there’s the rub! But we were so blinded then that none of us took the venerable things of the world seriously, unless a French gazette condescended to mention them. For all his talk of equality, the Cupbearer’s son became a marquis. Titles, as you know, come from Paris, and marquisates were all the rage. But fashion changed, and our marquis promptly became a democrat. When, under Bonaparte, the winds of fashion changed again, our democrat returned from Paris a baron. Had he lived another year, the dear baron would doubtless have re-espoused the democratic cause. Paris prides herself on her frequent about-faces of fashion. Whatever France contrives is bound to appeal to the Pole.
“If our youth now go abroad, then thank God it is not to shop for clothes, or browse the street booths for new laws, or learn the art of speech in the coffeehouses of Paris. Our wise and reckless Bonaparte gives us little time for fashions and idle talk. Today we hear the rumble of arms. Our old hearts swell with pride that our countrymen should once again be the talk of the world. The glory of our nation lives, which means our Commonwealth will rise again! Liberty’s tree sprouts perennially from the laurel’s stock. But alas, the years drag on in so much idleness, and our compatriots have still so far to come. The waiting is long. News is scarce. Reverend Father!” (Here the Chamberlain lowered his voice and turned to the Bernardine.) “I hear you bear news from Warsaw. Any word of our troops?”
“None! None at all!” rejoined Father Robak with a careless air. (Plainly the talk unsettled him.) “Politics bores me. The letter I carry from Warsaw is my congregation’s business, for religious alone. No need to discuss it at the table. These are laymen; it is no concern of theirs.”
Robak glanced sidelong at their Russian guest who was seated farther down the table. The guest was Captain Rykov, a seasoned soldier quartered in the neighboring village; the Judge had invited him out of courtesy. Until now the Captain had been eating heartily and taken little part in the talk, but at the mention of Warsaw he looked up.
“Ah, Chamberlain!” he observed. “Always one for news of Warsaw and Bonaparte! Yes, your country! I am no spy. I speak your Polish tongue. One’s country! I know! After all, I am a Russian, and you are Poles. For the moment there’s no scrapping between us: we have an armistice, and so we eat and drink together. Our boys at the forward posts knock back vodkas and chum with the French. But when the huzzah breaks forth, prepare for a cannonade! Our proverb says it best, ‘Love the man you love to thump.’ ‘Love him like your own soul, and then dust him good and proper like your fur coat.’ Oh, I tell you, there’s a war brewing! Just days ago the staff adjutant called on Major Płut. ‘Prepare to march!’ he says. Against Turk or French? Makes no difference. But Bonaparte is a card all right. Without our Suvorov, he may trump us yet. When our troops marched on the French, word went out that Bonaparte had magic. But Suvorov knew the black arts too, so it was spell against spell! On the battlefield once, we looked about—no sign of Bonaparte! He had turned into a fox; so Suvorov turns into a hound. Bonaparte shifts shape again: now he’s a cat. He starts slashing with his claws, and presto! Suvorov’s a pony. Then see what becomes of Bonaparte—” Rykov broke off and returned to his plate. A servant entered with the fourth course; at the same time, the side door swung suddenly open.
A young and comely new guest entered the hall. Her sudden entrance, imposing stature, handsome looks, and exquisite attire drew the company’s gaze. The guests greeted her; clearly all but Tadeusz had made her acquaintance. Svelte and shapely, with an alluring bosom, she had on a low-cut frock of rose-hued silk with short sleeves and a collar of lace. A generous shower of sparks flashed from the gilded fan that whirred in her hand (a bauble to fiddle with, as it wasn’t hot). She wore no headdress; her hair was a mass of pink ribbons, ringlets, and curls. As a star glimmers through a comet’s tail, so a diamond gleamed discreetly among the ribbons. In a word, she was dressed for a gala event, a tad too smart, muttered some, for everyday country wear. Though her frock was short, her feet eluded the eye. She moved swiftly or rather glided along like the Twelfth Night figurines, which boys, unseen by the viewer, push across the stage.
In she swept, greeting the guests with a slight bow, and made for the chair reserved for her. This was not easy. The Manor was short of chairs. Most of the company sat on four benches arranged in a square. Should they move back or oblige her to leap the bench? But she managed deftly to squeeze in between two benches. Like a billiard ball she shot around the table, clearing the corridor the guests had made for her. But, as she whisked past Tadeusz, she caught her flounce on someone’s knee, stumbled and, in her distraction, leaned her hand on the youth’s shoulder. Begging his pardon, she took her seat between him and the Judge. There she sat, ignoring her food, whirring her fan, fidgeting with the stem, now running her hand over her collar of Belgian lace, now smoothing her hair with its bright clusters of ribbon.
After a pause of some four minutes, talk began to pick up again, this time at the far end of the table: in an undertone at first, then loud enough to be heard. The men’s talk ran upon the day’s hunt. A heated exchange arose between the Notary and the Assessor over the latter’s bobbed greyhound. Passionately fond of his dog, the Notary insisted Bobtail had nabbed the hare. To spite him, the Assessor claimed the laurels for his own greyhound, Falcon. They sought out the views of the other guests. Soon everyone around them had taken sides, some championing Bobtail, others, Falcon, some claiming to be experts, others, eyewitnesses.
“My apologies, dear,” muttered the Judge to his new partner at table, “but we had to sit down. We could delay no longer. The guests were hungry after their long ramble in the fields. I thought you mightn’t be dining with us tonight.” At this, after pouring themselves a full goblet, he struck up quietly with the Chamberlain on a political theme.
With both ends of the table thus occupied, Tadeusz took leisure to study the stranger. He recalled his earlier guess and how right he had been. He blushed; his heart raced as never before. So the mystery of his thoughts stood solved! So it was foreordained that the lovely creature he had glimpsed in the twilight should sit at his elbow. True, now that she was dressed, she looked somewhat taller, for clothes can enhance or diminish a person’s stature. The other girl had short golden hair; this woman’s hair was long, raven-black, and curled into ringlets. No doubt the light had deceived him, for the setting sun imbues everything with a reddish tinge. He had not seen her face; it had fled his gaze too swiftly. But the mind’s eye has a way of divining fair looks. He had pictured her with dark eyes, a fair complexion, and cherry lips. This woman’s eyes, mouth, and face were just as he had imagined. Where the two seemed to differ most was in age. The little gardener had been but a girl, yet here was a grown woman. But youth does not probe into a beauty’s date of birth. To the eyes of a youth all women are young, all beauties, his peers. A pure-minded lad looks on every heart’s pride as a tender maiden.
Although Tadeusz was almost twenty and had lived since he was a boy in the great city of Wilno, he had been confided to the care of a priest, who raised him according to the old strict rules. And so the youth had come home possessed not only of an unsullied soul, a lively mind, and a guileless heart, but also a strong desire to cut loose. Even before leaving the city, he had resolved to taste the long-denied freedoms of country life. He was aware of his good looks, youth, and vigor. Robust health ran in his blood; after all, he was a Soplica, and everyone knew the Soplicas were a stout and sturdy clan, apt at soldiering, less so at learning.
Tadeusz brought no disgrace on his fathers. He rode ably, walked with a vigorous stride, and was by no means dull-witted, though he had shown little scholarly promise (this despite the small fortune his uncle had spent on his schooling). Shooting a gun and wielding a sword were more in his line. He knew he was going for a soldier; his father had stated as much in his will. And so all through school he had yearned for the soldier’s drum. But then his uncle changed his mind. He recalled him home with plans for marriage and handing down the estate: first a small hamlet, then the rest of the domain.
All of these gifts and qualities drew the attention of Tadeusz’s companion, for she had a discerning eye. She sized up his tall, handsome build, broad chest, and burly shoulders. She looked at his face, which lit up every time she met his gaze. Having mastered his initial bashfulness, he was now staring boldly back at her with a flaming eye. She returned his gaze. Two pairs of eyes blazed opposite each other like rorate candles.
She struck up a conversation: in French at first. Seeing that the lad had been at school in the city, she sought out his views on new books and authors. His replies brought on fresh queries. But then, heavens! she launched into painting, music, dance, and even the plastic arts. She proved to be equally at ease with the brush, the score, and letters. Her show of knowledge rendered Tadeusz speechless. Terrified of being made an object of ridicule, he stammered out his answers like a schoolboy before his master. Happily, his master was pretty and lenient. Guessing the cause of his dismay, she turned to less taxing, less cerebral matters, such as rural living, its tedium, bothers, and amusements. She spoke of the art of apportioning one’s time with a view to making life in the country happy and pleasant.
Tadeusz’s replies became bolder, and things forged ahead. Their talk grew more intimate. Within half an hour the two were fast friends, engaging even in squabbles and jokes. Finally, she rolled three pellets of bread on the table before him. He must chose between three individuals. He picked the nearest. The Chamberlain’s two daughters frowned. Tadeusz’s partner chuckled, but refrained from naming the lucky pellet.
Meanwhile, at the far end of the table, amusement fared altogether differently. Falcon’s champions had suddenly grown in strength and were mounting a merciless assault on the Bobtails. The dispute ran high, and the last courses lay untouched. Both factions were up on their feet, yelling and draining their cups. By far the most enraged among them was Bolesta the Notary. Given the floor, he went on like a millrace, gracing his speech with expressive gestures. (He had served on the bar where his habit of extravagant gesticulation earned him the nickname of Preacher.) At this moment, his arms were pulled in, his elbows thrust back. Two long-nailed fingers, representing the greyhounds’ leashes, pointed forward. He was just concluding his account.
“See-ho! Together we slip the leashes, the Assessor and I, like the hammers of a double barrel released at the pull of the trigger. They’re off! See-ho! The hare makes a sprint for the field. The dogs go hard at his heels.” (Here the Notary ran his hands over the table, uncannily mimicking the hounds’ movements with his fingers.) “Hard at his heels! In no time they cut him off from the forest, then whoosh! Falcon spurts on ahead. Yes, he’s a nimble one, but hotheaded. He leads Bobtail by so much, by a head. Still, I knew the hare would give him the slip. Crafty coney! He makes as if straight for the field, with the hounds right on his tail. Crafty little hare! No sooner does he sense the pack bunching up behind him than zip! he veers right and turns a summersault. The fool dogs swerve to the right after him, then lickety-split! he veers left. In two bounds he’s put ground between them; but the hounds are back on his tail. He’s heading for the forest, and that’s when my Bobtail goes,Whap!”
Here, bending over, the Notary ran his fingers over to the other side of the table and roared, “Whap!” right over Tadeusz’s ear.
Caught by surprise in the middle of their quiet chat, Tadeusz and Telimena instinctively drew back their heads like the crowns of adjacent trees sundered by a strong gust of wind. A pair of close-set hands sprang out from under the table as two faces broke out into a single blush.
Striving to hide his distraction, Tadeusz rejoined, “No doubt you are right, Mr. Notary, your bobbed one’s a handsome beast, no disputing. If he should be as quick at the—”
“Quick!” roared Bolesta. “My cherished hound not quick?”
Again Tadeusz expressed delight that such a handsome beast should be accounted faultless in every respect. But, alas! he had seen the dog only once, on their way back from the forest; hardly sufficient time in which to form an estimate of a greyhound’s qualities.
At this the Assessor bridled with anger. Dropping his cup to the floor, he pierced the youth with a basilisk’s eye. Though smaller and slighter and less given to shouting and gesticulation than the Notary, the Assessor enjoyed the reputation of being the terror of the masquerade party, ballroom, and regional diet. People said he had a sting in his tongue and could come up with remarks so witty as to merit inclusion in the almanac: all of them barbed and spiteful. Formerly a man of property and wealth, he had recklessly spent his own and his brother’s inheritance by attending high society. Now he had entered the government service to have influence in the district. Hunting was his abiding passion. Besides affording him great amusement, the sound of the horn and the sight of beaters recalled the days of his youth when he had employed scores of hunters and kept a kennel of first-rate hounds. Of those former hounds only two remained; and now the prowess of one of these had been called into question. Drawing closer to Tadeusz, he casually stroked his side-whiskers and, with a smile overflowing with venom, remarked:
“A bobbed greyhound is like a gentleman without a berth. A tail gives a hound dispatch; and you take its absence for a virtue? How say we put the case to your auntie? Though Mistress Telimena lives in the capital and only recently bides in our parts, I dare say she knows more about the chase than a callow hunter. Surely experience comes with years!”
Tadeusz, the target of this thunderbolt, leapt to his feet. Stunned, with no rebuttal coming to his lips, he glared at his rival with an increasingly terrible and ominous eye. But the Chamberlain chose this very moment to sneeze twice. “Bless you!” they cried in a chorus. He bowed to the guests and beat a slow tattoo upon his snuffbox. The article was made of gold, inlaid with diamonds, with a portrait of King Stanislas in the center. It had been the gift of the King to the Chamberlain’s father, and now the Chamberlain, after his sire, carried it proudly. A rap on the lid signaled his wish to address the company. The guests fell silent and listened intently.
“Honorable gentlemen and fellow nobles!” he said. “The field and the forest are the hunter’s proving ground. I will not undertake to settle such matters indoors and so I defer the matter until tomorrow. No further rejoinders today from either side! Sergeant at Arms! We adjourn until tomorrow into the fields. Tomorrow the Count and his entire shooting party will be joining us. You, dear Judge and neighbor, shall accompany us, as shall Mistress Telimena and all our ladies and demoiselles. In a word, we shall organize a splendid day of sport as befits the occasion; nor shall our Steward deprive us of his company!” And saying this, he passed his snuffbox down to the Chief Steward.
The Steward sat with the hunters at the foot of the table. He squinted his eyes, but offered no reply. More than once the youth had sought out his views, for there was no one in the district more knowledgeable about hunting than the Steward. Long he remained silent, deliberating over the pinch of snuff he had taken. At last, drawing the grains into his nostrils, then sneezing with such force that the entire hall rang out, he shook his head and smiled a bitter smile.
“Ah!” he said. “I cannot tell you how much this surprises and grieves an oldster like me. What would our old hunters have said upon seeing so many lords and noblemen being summoned to settle a dispute over a greyhound’s tail? What would old Rejtan say were he raised to life? Why, he’d slink back to his grave in Lachowicze! And what about old Governor Niesiołowski? To this day he keeps a kennel of the world’s finest bloodhounds and a retinue of ten-score hunters, to say nothing of the hundred cartloads of nets he keeps in store at his castle in Worańcza. All these years he has remained closeted up in his hall like a hermit and no one has yet enticed him into a spot of hunting. Why, he even refused Białopiotrowicz himself! But what kind of quarry would he be hunting on your expeditions? Some glory for a great lord to go tearing after a rabbit, as is the fashion now! In the hunter’s parlance of my day, gentlemen, it was the boar, the bear, the wolf, and the elk that deserved the title of noble game. A beast without tushes, horns, or claws was left to the paid servant or manorial flunkey. No self-respecting nobleman would take into his hand a gun bearing the indignity of being loaded with small shot. True, they had dogs at hand, for on the way home from the hunt a horse may chance to rouse some wretched hare. Then for fun they would let slip the dogs and watch the youngsters go after it on their ponies. Even then they hardly bothered to watch, much less argue over a hound. So, your lordship, I beg you, revoke your command. Forgive me, but I cannot hunt this way. Never will I take part in it! I bear the name of Hreczecha, and not since the time of old King Lech, has any Hreczecha gone haring after a rabbit—”
The youngsters’ laughter drowned out the rest of his reply. Meanwhile the company rose from the table. The Chamberlain was the first to leave (it was the prerogative of his office and senior years). He swept out, bowing to the ladies, elders, and youth. After him went the almsman, and then the Judge. On reaching the door, the Judge offered his arm to the Chamberlain’s wife. Tadeusz followed suit with Telimena; next went the Assessor with the Carver’s daughter; and last, the Notary with Mistress Hreczecha, the Steward’s daughter.
Tadeusz walked to the barn with a group of the guests. Confused, angry, and dejected, he was at pains to sort out the day’s events: the encounter in the house and the meal with his partner at table. Worst of all, the remark “auntie” buzzed about his ear like an irritating fly. He wished to learn more about Telimena from Protazy, but the Sergeant at Arms had slipped away. Neither was the Chief Steward anywhere to be seen. As servants of the manor, they had both returned to the house with the guests to prepare their sleeping quarters. The ladies and elders were lodging in the manor house. The youth would bed down in the barn. Upon Tadeusz fell the task of leading them there.
Half an hour later, the entire Manor stood as quiet as an abbey after the bell for vespers. Only the calls of the patrolling watchman broke the silence. The guests were all in bed. Only the Judge was denied rest. As master of the house, he was busy organizing the hunt and planning the reception to follow. Orders went out to the overseers, foremen, helpers, clerks, bailiff-mistress, hunters, and grooms. Finally, after running his eye over the day’s accounts, the Judge gave Protazy leave to undress him.
The Sergeant at Arms loosened his sash. It was a noble garment, made in the town of SBuck, woven from strands of gold and hung with gleaming tassels, thick and plumy like a helmet crest. One side was lined with a gilded cloth bearing a pattern of purple flowers, the other, with black silk set off with silver checkers. The article could be worn on either side, gold on gala days, silky-black in seasons of mourning. Only the Sergeant at Arms knew how to unclasp and fold the sash. He was engaged in this very operation when he concluded his argument.
“So what harm was there in removing the tables to the castle? No one suffered as a result, and you may even profit by it; after all, the castle is the object of our suit. As of today we have legal grounds for ownership. Despite the fierce contentions of the other side, I can now prove that we own it, for the fact that one invites one’s guests to dine at the castle is itself proof of ownership, or virtually so. We shall even serve subpoenas on the opposition to appear as witnesses! I recall similar cases in my day.”
But by now the Judge was sound asleep. The Sergeant at Arms tiptoed into the hallway. Taking a seat beside a candle, he reached into his pocket and drew out a notebook. The article served him like a daily missal; at home or away he was never without it. It was a court calendar, listing all the actions he had called before the bench and many others of which he learned after completing his term of office. To a layman it was a mere list of names; to the Sergeant at Arms it conjured up a host of marvelous images.
And so, leafing through the pages, he fell to reminiscing: Ogiński versus Wizgird, the Black Friars v. Rymsza, Rymsza v. Wysogird, Radziwiłł v. Mme. Wereszczaka, Giedrojć v. Rdułtowski, Obuchowicz v. the Jewish Council, Juracha v. Piotrowski, Maleski v. Mickiewicz; and, last of all, Soplica v. the Count. On he read, recalling the famous cases along with every detail of the proceedings. Court, disputant, and witness passed before his eyes. He saw himself, decked out before the court in his white tunic and navy-blue robe, one hand resting on his sword, the other beckoning to the parties to approach the bench. “Come to order!” he called; and so he mused on. At last, after saying his night prayers, Protazy, last of Lithuania’s Sergeants-at-arms, nodded off to sleep.
Such was the sport and feuding in Lithuania’s rustic nooks while the rest of the world foundered in a deluge of blood and tears; when that god of war, compassed by a cloud of regiments and a thousand field-pieces, yoked both gold and silver eagles to his war chariot and winged his way from the Libyan sands to the lofty Alps, raining bolt after bolt on the Pyramids, Tabor, Marengo, Ulm, and Austerlitz. Victory and Conquest stood as his van and rear. Glory, swelling with exploits, great with heroes’ names, thundered northward from the Nile, until at Niemen’s banks she dashed herself like a wave on the rock of Moscow’s host, a wall of iron protecting Lithuania from tidings that Russia feared like a pestilence.
Yet every now and then, like a stone cast from heaven, a piece of news would reach even Lithuania. Sometimes an armless or legless old beggar would show up at the door and ask for bread. On receiving his alms, he would cast wary glances around the yard. Once satisfied that there were no Russian soldiers, Jewish skullcaps, or scarlet collars about, he would reveal his identity: an old legionary dragging his carcass back to the country he could no longer defend. How the household, servants and all, would choke back their tears and fall about his neck! Led to the table, he would proceed to relate stories far stranger than any fable: of Dąbrowski enlisting Poles in the Lombard plains; of the General’s attempts to reach Poland from Italy; of victorious Kniaziewicz issuing orders from the Capitol; of the hundred bloody flags he had torn from Caesar’s scions and cast at the feet of the French; of Jabłonowski leading his Danube legion to the far ends of the earth. There, in the pepper groves and sugar-cane fields, under trees blossoming in a constant flourish of spring, he rained destruction on the black folk and pined for home.
The old man’s tales would circulate quietly about the countryside. Eventually, they would reach the ears of a youth, who would promptly vanish from his home. Evading the Muscovite troops, he would beat a stealthy path through wood and swamp, plunge into the Niemen and swim submerged to the other side—to the old Crown’s banks where a friendly “Welcome, mate!” greeted his ears. Only after climbing a rock and yelling out, “I’ll be back!” to the Muscovite on the other side, would he walk away. Górecki made it across; so did Pac, Obuchowicz, Piotrowski, Obolewski, Kupść, Różycki, Janowicz, Brochocki, Gedymin, the Bernatowiczes, Mierzejewskis, and many others. They forsook their kin, their beloved land, and all their goods, which the czarist treasury promptly seized for its coffers.
From time to time, an almsman would arrive from a foreign abbey to beg for alms. After acquainting himself with the manor holders, he would produce a newssheet concealed in the lining of his scapular. Recorded in that gazette were the muster and nominal rolls of every legion along with detailed accounts of the glorious deeds or demise of each of the officers. Thus, after many long years, a family would receive word of their son: how he had lived, won fame, and died, whereupon the entire household would put on the livery of grief. Exactly whom they mourned, they would not say. The neighborhood could only surmise. Silent grief or quiet expressions of joy were our landed gentry’s only means of spreading the news.
Now it appeared that Robak was one such secret envoy. Often he was seen conferring privately with the Judge. After each such talk, a fresh piece of news made the round of the district. Judging by his looks, this monk had not always gone about in a cowl or spent his years within cloistered walls. From a point between his right ear and temple, a welt of skin traveled the span of a hand across his skull. His chin bore the mark of a grazing lance or ball; clearly he had not won these from reading the sacramentary.
But it was not just his stern gaze and scars: his very manner of speech and the way he carried himself had something of a military character. At holy mass, when turning to his flock with outspread arms to say “Pax vobiscum!” he would do so briskly, in a single sweep, as if executing an about-face on command. He barked out the cadences of the liturgy as an officer might address his troops; at least so his altar boys thought at mass. Indeed, he seemed better versed in political affairs than in the lives of the saints. While questing for alms, he would often stop in the district town and run all manner of errands. He received letters (never opening them with strangers present) or dispatched messengers (where he sent them and why, no one knew). Often he would steal out at night to talk with the manor holders. He conferred endlessly with the nobility, beat well-worn paths to the surrounding villages, and dropped in at the taverns to chat with the rustics; invariably he spoke of events abroad.
So, now, the Judge, who had been asleep for an hour, was the object of such a visitation. Clearly the monk had news to impart.
Back to the January 2010 Issue
The Sarmatian Review
Last updated 2/22/2010