By Maria Dabrowska
Part One: Bogumil and Barbara
In the old days, the Niechcic family lived more or less like all the rest of the squirearchy. They maintained close and varied relations with their relatives - even with the most remote - who usually held estates similar to theirs or, what amounted to the same thing, suburban gardenlands supplying comparable agricultural income. They felt themselves to be an intimate part of a powerful self-sufficient tribe, which had its own jargon of kinship and friendliness, pondered how to educate its children aloof from outside influences and, in general, conducted its business in such a way that movement outside the tribe, or even outside the local ever-expanding family structure, was rare. The grandfather of Bogumil Niechcic, Maciej, however, had begun to drift slowly out of the family world. More and more often he received into his home friends and acquaintances from outside the clan: scientists, professors, artists, journalists, members and activists of political parties, people of doubtful origin or those who also left their own circle. The tale went out that Maciej Niechcic gave away heart, mind and, last but not least, money to perfect strangers. He acquired a reputation as a restless man and his own people began to avoid him.
What extenuated these antics in the minds of his more sympathetic relations was Maciej's supposed ambitious desire to emulate the great nobles, magnates and celebrities who traditionally patronized science, art and politics.
Soon, however, it became evident that Niechcic was a stranger to such ambitions: it was not in the least evident that the significance and splendor of his house was increasing in any sense. On the contrary, Maciej Niechcic seemed to be doing everything to become poorer and less conspicuous. For example, after the rising of 1830, he conceived the idea of exchanging one of his hereditary estates for another which, for some reason or other, suited his purposes better. Conducting the negotiations connected with the transfer, he showed more faith in his fellow men than prudence in seeing to his interests - as a result of which he bought an estate mortgaged to such an extent that his purchase led to the loss, not only of the newly bought estate, but also of one of the remaining family villages. So it was that the son of Maciej Niechcic, Michal, inherited from his father the family estate Jarosty considerably trimmed down, as well as his father's restless disposition. He also tried to wrench himself out of the family world and began his grownup life with a scandalous deed. He married a Dominican novice Florentyna Klicki. This Miss Klicki was the pretty and very poor bearer of a prominent name, who entered the convent in order to avoid being at the mercy of her rich relations. The story went out that Micha Niechcic had been seeing her secretly in the cloister, and that, if the truth were known, he had simply stolen her away. And even though, later on, everything was done according to law and custom - the lady repented according to all propriety, was released from her novitiate, and both received absolution and the sacrament of marriage - the noble houses, great and small, would not forgive Niechcic his behavior for a long time. He, however, did not make much of it, for, even though he was kind to everyone, he resembled his father in seeking for the associations to which he aspired: respect, friendship, closeness - not in the neighboring mansions, but in the world at large, with people busy with intellectual work or with public affairs. As for Lady Florentyna, she felt happy in her new circumstances, partly because having tasted many humiliations in her youth from people of her own circle, she considered the society of anyone else a great blessing, and partly because to be happy was consistent with her truly affectionate nature.
These were the parents of Bogumil Niechcic. Bogumil Adrian was their youngest son; he came into the world after many years of marriage. The older children died, one after another, which was, according to local opinion, God's punishment for Lady Florentyna's departure from the road of her holy vocation.
Bogumil grew up healthy, and at the age of fifteen he took part with his father in the rising of 1863. [Polish rising for independence against the Russians. Ed.]
In point of fact, Michal Niechcic had joined the insurrection not when the gentry finally decided to do so, but at the very beginning, together with the burghers, artisans, and youngsters of all extractions. His participation in the conflict was significant enough to have Jarosty confiscated after the defeat and to send him to Siberia. His wife followed him. The son Bogus was taken care of by some of those relatives who regarded the progeny of Maciej Niechcic as a family of madmen. Their understanding of their educational duties toward the youngster entrusted to their care was such that, shortly afterwards, he fled from them so cleverly that they were unable to find a trace of him. In the meantime, Lady Florentyna, having buried her husband in the remote Siberian forests, came back to Poland and, having cried her eyes out over the lost son, became a housekeeper in a mansion belonging to some acquaintances. She was satisfied with the bread she earned, for she had preserved the serenity of spirit which had never left her whatever her situation. After some time, her health deteriorated from age and the hardships of past life. Then the owners of the estate Krepa where she worked, fixed her a little flat in an outbuilding and settled her there together with her brother Klemens Klicki, also an ex-insurrectionist, who until then, lacking material means and somewhat deranged mentally, had lived in a poorhouse.
One day at the door of this cottage, where the resident Florentyna Niechcic was finishing her days together with Klemens Klicki, knocked the son Bogumil, having returned after the wandering of many years.
The maiden name of Barbara Joanna, later the wife of Bogumil Niechcic, was Ostrzenski. As for her grandfather, Jan Chryzostom Ostrzenski, he lost his estate Lorenki amidst many unfavorable circumstances of an economic nature which testified as much to the difficult situation of the whole country as to the fact that gathering and maintaining earthly goods did not agree with the nature of the aforesaid Jan Chryzostom. But if he resembled the Niechcices in his ability to lose material goods, he did not betray any inclination to acquire, or create, any other more intangible ones. He did not try to wrench himself out of his sphere either; on the contrary, while in the process of losing his inheritance he was on the best terms with family and neighbors. He was a lively rip and was generally liked because he drank, hunted, played cards and danced with everyone. Thus, he left his sons nothing but small leaseholds. One of these sons, Adam, had an alluring appearance and his father's disposition. While his brothers came back to the ownership of small estates, he lost everything on his lease, and since he hated the country, he soon moved to the city where he became a treasury clerk. He associated, however, only with the neighboring squirearchy, for only among them was he able to enjoy himself to the full. He was lucky, people liked him despite his lack of means and he soon married Miss Jadwiga Jaraczewski, the heiress to the two estates. In accomplishing this match, he was helped by luck as well as by accident. To be specific, the father of the bride gave her to Adam in a fit of rage because she dared to fall in love with a neighbor's tutor, a German and a burgher by birth. The father, a Mason, a democrat and a major under Bonaparte, was permeated with the ideals of the French Revolution; all this did not weaken, however, his blind attachment to tradition, to his coat of arms and the family line. He had wanted to marry his daughter in a way that would be consistent with her feelings and with the demands of her position. However, when she began to give him trouble after the discovery of her romance with the teacher, and threatened to become a nun if her marriage were not accepted - in a fit of spitefulness, cruelty and pride, the father decided to give her away without minding her feelings, to the first suitor who appeared, provided he was a noble. Adam Ostrzenski had recently stepped in; moreover, being a likable man, he had already won the hearts of the parents.
Miss Jaraczewski took the compulsory marriage vows with tears and was not happy with her husband. Adam Ostrzenski soon lost both dowry estates and began to neglect his wife for months at a time for other women. She, on her part, was unable to forget her teacher. Both of them, however, had so much gentleness of disposition and attractiveness about them, that they could not remain indifferent to each other. After each financial loss, each argument and each emotional parting, they would return to each other amidst outbursts of desperate love, and they gave life to six children, four of whom survived.
Barbara was the youngest of them, just as Bogumi was his parents' youngest. She had no rememberance of a well-to-do home. She was born in a town where Adam Ostrzenski, after many vicissitudes of fate, had obtained the office of mayor. She was five when she lost her father. Adam Ostrzenski was struck by lightning in his own flat, at the moment when he was trying, during a storm, to close the window tightly so that water would not drip on the floor.
Widowed, Jadwiga Ostrzenski moved to the provincial capital of Kaliniec, following the advice of the patriarch of the family, the rich councillor Joachim Ostrzeski, who felt an obligation to supervise the family of his imprudent relative. There she opened a boarding house for high school boys, at the same time educating her own children with great difficulty. After one year of such life, the insurrection of 1863 broke out; all boys, including her oldest son Daniel went to the woods to join the guerrillas. At that time, Jadwiga Ostrzenski sank so low financially that she had to exchange her spacious flat for a room with a garret, and to sell almost all her furniture. However, she did not lose her strength of mind even for a moment, nor did she allow her children to quit school. Sad experiences of her early years had disenchanted her with the prestige and benefits of affluence and birth. She believed only in education. She wished her sons to become scientists, or at least to acquire positions requiring only mental work; she wanted to provide the same opportunities for her daughters. When the insurrection was put down and Daniel, wounded in the leg, came home at last, Lady Jadwiga moved heaven and earth - including the vice governor of Kaliniec, whom the councillor Ostrzenski knew - to enable her son to finish the gymnasium and afterwards to enter the university. Timid and unsure of herself by nature, she was fierce and unyielding when she confronted difficulties or harassment related to the education of her children. In this respect, she was ready for the greatest humiliations and sacrifices, including the repugnance of asking for favors in governing circles. She would not accept any financial help, however - in that she was unpleasantly and rudely proud - she would agree unwillingly, only to the summer trips to Piekary Wielkie, the estate of the councillor Joachim. Besides, she believed herself capable of getting out of the greatest difficulties, and trusted that her children would help out in time. One son was supposed to be a biologist, the other, an engineer. Already they were in higher educational institutions, Daniel in Warsaw and Julian in St. Petersburg, and supported themselves by giving lessons. But they could not as yet send anything to mother, or perhaps they did not feel obliged to do so, occupied as they were with scholarly pursuits. So it was that Lady Jadwiga lived, with her two daughters in indescribable poverty. During the first few years their sustenance depended almost exclusively on the sale of the grand remnants of the past: linen tablecloths, old furs, cambric undergarments and keepsake silver. When this stock ran out, the older daughter, Teresa, having reached the upper forms of the gymnasium, began to give lessons; they did not always suffice for dinner, but they kept them from starving.
The family situation got considerably better when Daniel and Julian completed their studies. Julian remained in St. Petersburg, and only announced by a letter that he had received a good position, but Daniel settled down with his mother and sisters and began to teach biology in the recently established private technical gymnasium in Kaliniec. The teaching profession was, at that time in Poland, one of the few open to the educated Poles. So that, shortly afterwards, the daughter Teresa also began to teach in the same gymnasium which she had previously attended and when the youngest one, Basia, completed her schooling, she, in turn, began to disseminate her freshly acquired knowledge in various private houses.
Gaiety, bustle and small talk began now to reign in the household of Adam Ostrzenski's widow. A suitable apartment was rented in the middle of the town and friends and acquaintances of Daniel and Teresa began to flock there afternoons and evenings to read books, sing and dance together. The budding Miss Basia's hemline was still very high, in spite of her respectable earnings reaching as much as a few rubles a month. She was still regarded as a little girl by the company which gathered in Lady Ostrzenski's home, but in a way which did not hurt her self-esteem. For she was not only admitted to all the amusements of the more adult assembly, but also enjoyed a number of privileges on various occasions. Daniel Ostrzenski's friends were young students or freshly baked lawyers, doctors and teachers, biologists, historians, mathematicians. All of them had great reserves of vigor and talent commensurate with great enterprises and, lacking a broader field of activity forbidden to all by the government, they expended their extra energy in long chats and in play. They read together Buckle's History of Civilization in England and Huxley's The Physical Basis of Life, discussed Darwin's theory, played Chopin's revolutionary etude, his 'insurrectionist' prelude and Sonata Pathetique of Beethoven; they sang Mickiewicz's ballads and such songs as "Rise up, o eagle, from your wounds and shackles," "Hide away mother, my gowns, pearls, rose wreaths," "Why is the heart sad," etc., took long promenades in the moonlight on the river bank and in the park, danced until the small hours, went boating in the country near Kaliniec and, under Daniel's leadership organized botanic expeditions. In the summer, the same manner of spending the time was transferred to the country estate of the councillor Joachim, who gladly gathered around him both his poor relations and their socially and intellectually distinguished friends.
At that time, Miss Barbara took a strong liking to the diversity of life and to mental entertainment, whose contagious gaiety she took to be the essence of her own nature. She felt then herself to be happy and joyful, especially when the guests included a certain Mr. Józef Toliboski, a young lawyer of small but shapely proportions, the dark-haired owner of a black beard and fair eyes, cold and steely in color but in expression, fiery and caressing. He seemed to be taking a great interest in the younger Miss Ostrzenski. They had never been alone with each other, but in every gathering he was always near her.
One day during a country excursion, the whole company was resting on a hill by the river. Part of the riverbed at that place was overgrown with the blossoming water lilies which Miss Barbara liked very much.
'What a pity,' she said, 'that one cannot pick them.'
Józef Toliboski glanced at her and, saying nothing, as if it were not a coquettish prank but an austere proof of his readiness to do anything, proceeded into the river just as he was and, immersing himself up to his shoulders, came back with his arms full of heavy white flowers. Those on the riverbank cracked jokes during the whole time, roaring with laughter, and Miss Barbara cried. After this event she was even more happy when Mr. Józef was among the invited crowd.
A few years passed. Daniel became engaged, and shortly afterwards Teresa followed his example. Miss Barbara doted upon Daniel and adored Teresa. Therefore their betrothal filled her simultaneously with joy and despair; she rejoiced in their happiness but regretted the necessity of losing them to some degree. And not only them. She was afraid that when brother and sister left the house, the sympathetic and intelligent company in which her youth was passing in such a blissful manner, would also disperse. Though it often happened that she felt herself an inseparable part, or even the center of the soirees, merrymakings and chitchats, she did not have so high an opinion of herself as to think that these nice people gathered for her sake as well. Her brother, the wisest and most learned of them all, was the cause of their coming, and also her sister, who was so very interesting and more beautiful than she herself. Both wedding ceremonies left little in the memory of Miss Barbara, because she wondered all the time whether her brother's friends would continue to frequent the Ostrzenski home.
Having seen her new sister-in-law, she irrevocably lost all hope in this respect. Daniel Ostrzenski's bride was Miss Michalina Poleska, the daughter of a family of squires from the countryside near Warsaw. Her parents were just on the eve of losing their estate, their bad financial standing had recently scared off several desirable suitors; in this situation, they considered it not unacceptable to give their daughter away to a young man of good parentage to whom a brilliant scientific career was predicted. Still, they could not deny themselves the pleasure of explaining here and there that their daughter had committed a mésalliance, justified only by the ardor of her love - in which they, as parents, had not wished to interfere. These tales reached the ears of Lady Jadwiga, and on that account the new daughter-in-law was received somewhat haughtily.
Daniel Ostrzenski's wife was Miss Barbara's junior. She was seventeen, but she had already developed into a splendid and abundant, full-grown womanhood; smartly dressed, with rosy cheeks, she attracted all eyes. Side by side with her, Miss Barbara looked like a frail little girl, and so she felt. It seemed to her that now for the first time she saw a true woman, facing whom such creatures as herself could do nothing but retreat into the shade. So that when, after the first and second wedding, there indeed came a few quiet, empty, and penny-pinching weeks - she secretly decided that the period of her youth was over; and on that occasion, she cried her eyes out over the inevitable, as she thought, loss of Mr. Toliboski's friendship. For if he did not fall in love with her sister-in-law, which he could only avoid by the most serious precautions, in the luster emanating from the latter, he would lose all notice of little Basia.
Things did not turn out so badly, however. On the contrary, after a short break, social relations were reestablished, the friendly circle began to meet again not in one, but in three homes. Daniel's Michasia was indeed anxious to receive praise, but she did not believe that any competitor could deprive her of it. She liked to shine in every respect, but she drew others into the light in which she moved - indeed, she had an exceptional ability to organize successful social events. Whether at a reception, country excursion or skating party, or during more serious social gatherings, she knew how to bring out in full relief the role and assets of each one of those present, so that everyone felt himself to be necessary, desirable and at his proper place - and, therefore, willingly ceded top priority to her. She had not had much education, had not even completed the gymnasium unlike Basia and Teresa Ostrzenski, so that when the young company discussed topics taken from history, biology or philosophy, she would sometimes say something stupid, confuse generally known facts or even mispronounce less common words, not to speak of names. But she organized poetry recitations, tableaux and amateur theatricals with great delight, and drew everyone into these activities - which talent did not, in fact, raise any grudges against her because it contributed greatly to the diversity of social relations. Lady Michasia's specialty was to create everything out of thin air.
'Out of nothing,' she would say, 'I fixed his supper, patched up the curtain and the décor. And also this dress that everyone so dotes upon, I made, if the truth were known, out of nothing.'
The new sister-in-law proved to be very affectionate towards Miss Barbara, and both young ladies soon developed a warm friendship. This friendship was more uninhibited on the part of Lady Michalina, for Miss Barbara always entertained certain reservations. Among other notions, Lady Michalina considered it a manifestation of friendly closeness to discuss together wardrobe and the details of beauty care. It was hard for Miss Barbara to bear this sort of intimacy. Both her self-esteem and her modesty suffered a great deal when her sister-in-law praised or upbraided her on her appearance, or when she undressed to show Basia a new styling of the bodice or panties. But it was merry and pleasant to talk to Michasia about current events. Moreover, the fear concerning the possible loss of Mr. Toliboski's friendship was gone. Daniel Ostrzenski's wife was, in fact, much less dangerous in this respect than one might have supposed. Men admired her, but only from a distance. In spite of the great freedom of her manner, she was too monumental and too Sunday-best to kindle more personal feelings. Perhaps also her love for Daniel made her inaccessible; some men, however, maintained that she evoked indifference in her husband also, for she did not have the talents and the temperament of a great lover. Nonetheless, Daniel must have held different opinions about that: Miss Barbara could not imagine anyone looking happier more ardently in love than he did at that time.
Be that as it may, Lady Michalina's charms did not deprive any of the other young ladies in the circle of her admirers. Indeed, Miss Barbara even acquired two new ones in the course of the parties organized by her sister-in-law - they both were, however, rejected on grounds which were not quite clear for the rest of the company. As for Józef Toliboski, he did not cease to court Miss Barbara in spite of the obvious beauty of the professor's wife (for that was the name by which Lady Michalina was called), in spite of her curly tresses, jet-black and elaborately set, her hazel eyes, and her happy facility for moving around in the world. And now his courtship was pursued not only in public - now they were taking walks together, during which the young man, even though less eager to flatter than in public, knew how to convey his friendship by a look, a handshake or a few words. Miss Barbara patiently enjoyed this state of affairs during the next two years, until the day that the word went out that Mr. Toliboski was to be married. Entertainment and parties already were less frequent at that time, the professions of the members of the group were consuming more and more time, and Daniel and Teresa had become parents. The wedding of Józef Toliboski and Miss Narecki - plain but rich - took place in Warsaw, where parents of the bride were spending the winter. Józef Toliboski renounced the promising career at the bar which people were predicting for him. And the young couple settled down in Borowno, the dowry estate of the bride, several miles away from Kaliniec.
Soon afterwards Barbara Ostrzenski became as one terrified of participating in life. She removed herself from worldly affairs, began to dress austerely in black, and since she wore short hair and looked somewhat boyish, she was nicknamed 'the seminarist.' The only person with whom she kept in close touch was her sister, who was, it appears, also her confidant. Some familiarity existed also between her and her brother-in-law, a witty and energetic Lithuanian by the name of Kociell, somewhat ugly in appearance, but who liked his sister-in-law very much and knew how to make her enjoy herself.
Miss Barbara, who once dreamed of further studies and of some vaguely envisaged distinction in intellectual pursuits or perhaps in letters, now abandoned all ambitions in that field and decided to master the art of sewing. In order to achieve this goal, she left for Warsaw using the money borrowed from her brother-in-law for that purpose. There she began to take the appropriate schooling in the well-known salon of the sisters Kunke, at the corner of Krakowskie Przedmiescie and Królewska streets. This kind of work made up for certain inhibitions in her friendship with her sister-in-law Michalina. Now, from a professional standpoint, she could discuss with her ladies' garments and underwear with great pleasure. And, since she felt guilty that she could not satisfy Michalina in this respect before, she now wrote to her very often and described in her letters the most fashionable garments of the season, which included black satins with golden trimming, sky-blue dresses with yellow damask tops, smart dark-sapphire velvets and the otter-colored costumes, so greatly in demand in Paris. When the borrowed funds ran out, Miss Barbara abandoned sewing but did not leave Warsaw. She began to earn money again, teaching arithmetic and handiwork at a school for girls established by a classmate of hers. In that way she returned to the same sort of acquaintances and intellectual hobbies which she had enjoyed in the past. In addition to that, she discovered a new kind of spiritual pleasure, detached from personal relations. It was furnished by museum collections, theaters, art exhibits, Musical Society matinées, and public lectures. In the letters to her sister, she called this new manner of familiarizing herself with science and art 'the true enjoyment of life.' She regained her gaiety, ceased to regard the old Kaliniec bunch of friends as irreplaceable and found other ways of spending the summer than visits with her mother and sister. She began to spend her summer and winter vacations either with the family of her brother-in-law in Lithuania, whom she had recently met and at whose home she had again rejected the proposal of a serious young suitor, or with lady Zenobia Lada, a remote relative of the Ostrzenskis living in the town Borek in the northern part of Mazovia. Miss Barbara liked to go to Borek, for she felt herself welcome there: she was looked at and admired as a person from the upper set, a Warsaw elegante. Besides, the countryside there was different from that near Kaliniec. The road to Borek led through large and varied broadleaf woods, which stretched around for miles. While travelling on this road Miss Barbara would gladly expel from her memory all thoughts about past and future, and let herself sink entirely into the swarthy thickets, into the luxuriant greenness, full of music and the sigh of the wind. All this would happen, of course, in the daylight, for if she happened to travel through those woods at night, she trembled a little, especially while passing the immense forest in the Krepa estate, where rotting trees emanated a pale phosphorescence through the darkness.
Jan Lada was a descendant of petty nobility, but even the memory of the few acres that must have belonged to his ancestors, had long since died out. His past jobs included bookkeeping and clerking for big estates, and since he was industrious and lucky, he had made some money. A part he had made by himself and a part he acquired in his wife's dowry.
When Miss Barbara met him, he was comfortably off, held the office of town clerk and was employed as the secretary in a business establishment of the Agricultural Society; on top of that, he had become again a landowner of sorts, for he owned a beautiful mansion with a garden in the Borek suburbs, together with some hundred acres of land - all this once having belonged to a large estate, now defunct, with its center in Borek Dworski. Thus, he engaged in several occupations, and looked as if he could manage twice as many. He was a handsome, strong fellow of bushy dark brows with fair eyes underneath, broad forehead, narrow round chin and luxurious mustache falling on ruddy lips. Married to a clever but sickly, tiny, timid girl, he detested her all his life. Mrs. Zenobia Lada was, in comparison to him, a great lady by birth and upbringing; he liked to humiliate her for that and with acrid jokes reminded her now of her plainness, now of her sickness. In connection with that he was constantly infuriated with her frail intelligent children who had inherited their mother's nervousness, and beat them till the air whistled. He was hospitable, kind and gay with strangers, and did not produce the impression of hypocrisy. He simply liked everyone better than his own family.
Barbara Ostrzenski's visits were truly god sent for Lady Lada. She would bring books and magazines, her conversations would make one forget about the sad and sour life - the life which made Miss Barbara think: 'How good I have not married and never will.'
For Jan Lada, Miss Ostrzenski's presence provided the occasion to organize parties and receptions of which he was very fond.
To one such party there came a man who danced at first but then withdrew to a neighboring room and began to watch one of the dancing ladies. In doing that, he began to ease himself into the shadow of the velvet curtain, as if trying to keep secret the direction in which he looked. He was not a youngster, but a grown man, tall, with long and beautiful legs, slim waist, wide shoulders and a broad, pleasant face.
The young person at whom he was looking so incessantly, wore a sequin-covered blouse and a black folded skirt with the sides pinned up in a manner which, to him appeared much less exaggerated than other women. She looked eighteen at most, her hair was black and cut short like a boy's, her eyes - he did not yet have time to notice their color; her face, small, but clearly delineated, proud and sincere. Of a free yet restrained manner and uninhibited movements, she was bustling about the ballroom in her golden little cuirass, which all the while reflected the light in thousands of golden zigzags and twists.
Someone from the household passed by the guest who was occupied with gazing and who then shuddered with embarrassment and asked: 'Who is this young lady in the zigzagged blouse?'
The young man who thus inquired was Bogumil Niechcic.
Back to the April 1999
The Sarmatian Review
Last updated 4/23/99