Here she offered him her hand. The Count knelt and kissed it; Telimena raised her handkerchief to one eye, but with the other eye she looked down on the Count, who was bidding her farewell with deep emotion. She sighed, but shrugged her shoulders.
But the Judge said: "Hurry up, my dear Count, for it is already late!" And the Monk Robak called out with a threatening mien: "Enough of this; hurry up!" Thus the orders of the Judge and the Monk separated the tender pair and drove them from the room.
Meanwhile Thaddeus had embraced his uncle with tears and was kissing Robak's hand. Robak, pressing the lad's brow to his breast and hying his palms crosswise on his head, gazed aloft and said: "My son, may God be with you!" Then he began to weep. But Thaddeus was already beyond the threshold.
"What, brother?" asked the Judge, "will you tell him nothing? not even now? Shall the poor lad still remain in ignorance, now that he is going to leave us!"
"No, nothing!" said the Monk, after a long interval of weeping, his face covered by his hands. "Why should the poor fellow know that he has a father who has hidden himself from the world as a scoundrel and a murderer? God sees how I longed to tell him, but of that consolation I will make an offering to God, to expiate my former sins."
"Then," said the Judge, "it is now time for you to think of yourself. Pray reflect that a man of your age, in your weak condition, would be unable to emigrate along with the others. You have said that you know a little house where you must hide; tell me where it is. We must hasten, the waggon is waiting, ready harnessed; would it not be better to go to the woods, to the forester's hut?"
"Early to-morrow morning will be time enough," said Robak, nodding his head. "Now, my brother, send for the priest to come here as quickly as may be with the viaticum; send off every one but the Warden, and shut the door."
The Judge carried out Robak's instructions and sat down on the bed beside him; but Gerwazy remained standing, resting his elbow on the pommel of his sword, and leaning his bent brow on his hands.
Robak, before beginning to speak, riveted his gaze on the face of the Warden and remained mysteriously silent. But as a surgeon first lays a gentle hand on the body of a sick man before he makes a cut with the knife, so Robak softened the expression of his sharp eyes, which he allowed to hover for a long time over the eyes of Gerwazy; finally, as if he wished to strike a blind blow, he covered his eyes with his hand and said with a powerful voice:—
"I am Jacek Soplica."
At these words the Warden turned pale, bowed down, and, with half his body bent forward, remained fixed in this position, hung upon one foot, like a stone flying from on high but checked in its course. He raised his eyelids and opened wide his mouth with its threatening white teeth; his mustaches bristled; his sword dropped from his hands, but he caught it near the floor with his knees and held the pommel with his right hand, gripping it convulsively: the long black blade of the sword stretched out behind him and shook back and forth. And the Warden was like a wounded lynx, about to spring from a tree into the very face of a hunter: it puffs itself into a ball, growls, flashes fire from its bloody eyeballs, twitches its whiskers and lashes its tail.
"Pan Rembajlo," said the Monk, "I am no longer alarmed by the wrath of men, for already I am under the hand of God. I adjure thee in the name of Him who saved the world, and on the cross blessed His murderers and accepted the prayer of the robber, that you relent, and hear in patience what I have to say. I have myself declared my name; to ease my conscience I must gain or at least beg forgiveness. Hear my confession; then you will do with me as you wish."
Here he joined his two hands as though in prayer; the Warden drew back amazed, smote his hand on his brow and shrugged his shoulders.
And the Monk began to tell of his former intimacy with the Horeszko and of the love between him and the Pantler's daughter, and of the enmity between the two men that thence arose. But he spoke confusedly; often he mixed accusations and complaints in his confession, often he interrupted his speech as though he had ended, and then began anew.
The Warden, who was thoroughly familiar with the story of the Horeszkos, straightened out in his mind the whole tale, though it was sadly tangled, and could fill up the gaps in it; but the Judge entirely failed to understand many points. Both listened attentively, bending their heads forward; but Jacek spoke more and more slowly, and often interrupted himself.
* * * * * * * *
"You already know, my dear Gerwazy, how often the Pantler used to invite me to banquets; he would propose my health, and many a time he cried, raising his beaker aloft, that he had no better friend than Jacek Soplica. How he would embrace me! All who saw it thought that he shared his very soul with me. He a friend? He knew what then was passing within my soul!
* * * * * * * *
"Meanwhile the neighbourhood was already whispering; gossips would say to me: 'Ah, Pan Soplica, your suit is vain; the threshold of a dignitary is too high for the feet of Jacek the Cup-Bearer's son.' I laughed, pretending that I mocked at magnates and their daughters, and that I cared nothing for aristocrats; that if I often visited them, I did it out of mere friendship, and that I would never marry outside my own station in life. And yet these jests pricked my soul to the quick: I was young and daring, and the world was open to me in a land where, as you know, one born a simple gentleman may be chosen king just as freely as the most powerful lord. Once Tenczynski asked in marriage a daughter of a royal house, and the King gave her to him without shame.173 Are not the Soplicas of equal merit with the Tenczynskis, through their blood, through their ancient crest, and through their faithful service to the Commonwealth!
* * * * * * * *
"How easily a man may ruin the happiness of others in a single instant; and in a long lifetime he cannot restore it! One word from the Pantler, and how happy we should have been! Who knows? Perhaps we should be living still; perhaps he too, with his beloved child—with his fair Eva—and with her grateful husband, would have grown old in peace! perhaps he would have rocked to sleep his grandchildren! But now? He has destroyed us both—and he himself—and that murder—and all the consequences of that crime, all my sufferings and transgressions! I have no right to accuse him, I am his slayer; I have no right to accuse him, I forgive him from my heart—but he too——
* * * * * * * *
"If he had but once openly refused me—for he knew our feelings—if he had not received my visits, then who knows? Perhaps I should have gone away, have become enraged, have cursed him, and finally have left him in peace. But he, the proud and cunning lord, formed a new plan; he pretended that it had never even entered his head that I could strive for such a union. But he needed me, I had influence among the gentry and every one in the district liked me. So he feigned not to notice my love; he welcomed me as before and even insisted that I should come more often; but whenever we were alone together, seeing my eyes darkened with tears and my heart over-full and ready to burst forth, the sly old man would suddenly throw in some indifferent word about lawsuits, district diets, or hunting——
* * * * * * * *
"Ah, often over the winecups, when he was in a melting mood, when he clasped me so closely and assured me of his friendship, since he needed my sabre or my vote at the diet, and when in return I was forced to clasp him in friendly wise, then anger would so boil up within me that I would turn the spittle within my lips and clasp my sword hilt with my hand, longing to spit upon this friendship and to draw the sword at once. But Eva, noticing my glance and my bearing, would guess, I know not how, what was passing within me, and would gaze at me imploringly, and her face would turn pale; and she was so fair and meek a dove, and she had so gentle and serene a glance!—so angel-like that—I know not how—but I lacked the courage to anger or alarm her—and I held my peace. And I, a roistering champion famous through all Lithuania, before whom the greatest lords had been wont to tremble, who had not lived a day without a battle, who would not have allowed the Pantler, no, not the King himself, to do me wrong; I, who was driven to fury by the least disagreement—I, then, though angry and drunken, held my peace like a lamb!—as though I had suddenly beheld the consecrated Host!174
* * * * * * * *
"How many times did I wish to open my heart and even to humble myself to implore him; but when I looked into his eyes and met his gaze cold as ice, I felt shame for my emotion; I hastened once more to discourse as coldly as I might of suits at law and of the district diets, and even to jest. All this, to be sure, was from pride, in order not to debase the name of the Soplicas, in order not to lower myself before a magnate by a vain request and receive a refusal—for what gossip there would have been among the gentry, if they had known that I, Jacek——
* * * * * * * *
"The Horeszkos refuse a wench to a Soplica! They serve me, Jacek, with black soup!
"Finally, not knowing myself what way to turn, I bethought me of gathering together a little company of gentry, and of leaving forever this district and my Fatherland; of going off somewhere or other, to Moscow or to the land of the Tatars, and beginning a war. I rode over to bid the Pantler farewell, in the hope that when he saw his faithful partisan, his former friend, a man almost of his own household, with whom he had caroused and made war for so many long years, now bidding him farewell and riding off to the ends of the earth—that the old man might be moved and show me at least a trace of a human soul, as a snail shows its horns!
"Ah! if one has at the bottom of his heart the faintest spark of feeling for a friend, that spark will break forth when he bids him farewell, like the last flame of life before a man expires! The coldest eye, when for the last time it touches the brow of a friend, will often shed a tear!
* * * * * * * *
"The poor girl, hearing that I was about to leave the country, turned pale, and fell in a swoon, almost dead; she could not speak, but from her eyes there streamed a flood of tears—I learned how dear I was to her.
* * * * * * * *
"I remember that for the first time in my life I shed tears, for joy and for despair; I forgot myself, I went mad; I was ready once more to fall at her father's feet, to cling like a serpent about his knees, to cry out, 'Dear father, take me for your son or slay me!' Then the Pantler, sullen, cold as a pillar of salt, polite and indifferent, began a discourse—of what? of what? Of his daughter's wedding! At that moment? O Gerwazy, dear friend, consider; you have a human heart!
"The Pantler said: 'Pan Soplica, a wooer has just come to me on behalf of the Castellan's175 son; you are my friend, what do you say to that? You know, sir, that I have a daughter, fair and rich—and the Castellan of Witepsk! That is a low, parvenu seat in the Senate; what do you advise me, brother?' I have entirely forgotten what I said in reply to that, probably nothing at all—I mounted my horse and fled!"
* * * * * * * *
"Jacek!" cried the Warden, "you are clever at finding excuses! Well? They do not lessen your guilt! For it has happened many a time ere now that a man has fallen in love with the daughter of a lord or king, and has tried to capture her by force; has planned to steal her away or to avenge himself openly—but so stealthily to kill him! a Polish lord, in Poland, and in league with the Muscovites!"
"I was not in league with them," answered Jacek in a voice full of sorrow. "Seize her by force? I might have; from behind gratings and locks I would have snatched her; I would have shattered this castle of his into dust! I had behind me Dobrzyn and four other hamlets. Ah, would that she had been such as our plain gentlewomen, strong and vigorous! Would that she had not dreaded flight and the pursuit and could have borne the sound of clashing arms! But the poor child! Her parents had shielded her so carefully that she was frail and timid! She was but a little spring caterpillar—the larva of a butterfly! And to snatch her thus, to touch her with an armed hand, would have been to kill her. I could not! No!
"To avenge myself openly, and tumble the castle into ruins by an assault, I was ashamed, for they would have said that I was avenging myself for my rejection! Warden, your honest heart cannot feel what hell there is in wounded pride.
"The demon of pride began to suggest to me better plans: to take a bloody revenge, but to hide the reason for my vengeance; to frequent the castle no more and to root out my love from my heart; to dismiss Eva from my memory and to marry another; and then later to find some pretext for a quarrel, and to take vengeance.
"At first I thought that I had succeeded in overcoming my heart, and I was glad of that fancied change, and—I married the first poor girl that I met! I did evil, and how cruelly was I punished for it! I loved her not, Thaddeus's poor mother, my most devoted wife and the most upright soul—but I was strangling in my heart my former love and my anger. I was like a madman; in vain I forced myself to work at farming or at business; all was of no avail. Possessed by the demon of vengeance, morose and passionate, I could find no comfort in anything in the world—and thus I passed from one sin to another; I began to drink.
"And so in no long time my wife died of grief, leaving me that child; and despair consumed me!
* * * * * * * *
"How ardently I must have loved that poor girl! for so many years! Where have I not been! And yet I have never been able to forget her, and still does her beloved form stand before mine eyes as if painted! I drank, but I have not been able to drink down her memory for one instant; nor to free myself from it, though I have traversed so many lands! Now I am in the dress of God's servant, on my bed, and bleeding—I have spoken of her so long—at this moment to speak of such things! God will forgive me! You must learn now in what sorrow and despair I committed——
"That was but a short time after her betrothal. Everywhere the talk was of nothing but her betrothal; they said that when Eva took the ring from the hand of the Wojewoda she swooned, that she had been seized with a fever, that she had symptoms of consumption, that she sobbed continually; they conjectured that she was secretly in love with some one else. But the Pantler, calm and gay as ever, gave balls in his castle and assembled his friends; me he no longer invited—in what way could I be useful to him? My scandalous life at home, my misery, my disgraceful habits had brought upon me the contempt and mockery of the world! Me, who once, I may say, had made all the district tremble! Me, whom Radziwill had called 'my dear'! Me, who, when I rode forth from my hamlet, had led with me a train more numerous than a prince's! And when I drew my sabre, then many thousand sabres had glittered round about, striking terror to the lords' castles,—But now the very children of the peasant boors laughed at me! So paltry had I quickly made myself in the eyes of men! Jacek Soplica! He who knows the feeling of pride——"
Here the Bernardine grew weak and fell back on the bed, and the Warden said, deeply moved:—
"Great are the judgments of God! It is the truth! the truth! So is it you? and are you Jacek? the Soplica? in a monk's cowl? Have you been living a beggar's life! You, whom I remember when you were strong and rosy, a handsome gentlemen, when lords flattered you, when women went mad over you! The mustachioed champion! That was not so long ago! it is grief that has aged you thus! How could I fail to recognise you from that shot, when you hit the bear with so sure an aim? For our Lithuania had no better marksman than you, and next to Maciek you were also the foremost swordsman! It is the truth! Once the gentlewomen sang of you:—
When Jacek twirls his whisker, men tremble far and near; 'Gainst whom he knots his whisker, that man feels mortal fear— Though he be Prince Radziwill, to fight he will not dare.
You tied a knot against my lord! Unhappy man! And is it you? Fallen to such a state! The mustachioed Jacek a monkish alms-gatherer! Great are the judgments of God! And now! ha! you cannot escape the penalty; I have sworn, he who has shed a drop of the Horeszkos' blood——"
Meanwhile the Monk had raised himself to a sitting posture on the bed; and he thus concluded:—
"I rode around the castle; who can tell the names of all the devils that filled my head and heart! The Pantler? Is he slaying his own child as he has already slain and ruined me?—I rode up to the gate; a demon enticed me there. Look how he revels! Every day a drinking bout in the castle! How many candles there are in the windows, what music peals through the halls! And shall not this castle crash down upon his bald head?
"Think of vengeance, and a demon will at once furnish you a weapon. Hardly had I thought of it, when the demon sent the Muscovites. I stood gazing; you know how they stormed your castle.
* * * * * * * *
"For it is false that I was in any league with the Muscovites.
* * * * * * * *
"I gazed; various thoughts passed through my head: at first with a stupid laugh I gazed as a child upon a burning house; then I felt a murderous joy, expecting that speedily it would begin to blaze and totter; at times I was prompted to leap in and save her—even the Pantler——
* * * * * * * *
"Your defence, as you know, was vigorous and prompt. I was amazed; the Muscovites kept falling close by me; the beasts aimed poorly.—At the sight of their overthrow hatred again overcame me.—That Pantler a victor! And shall he prosper thus in his every purpose? And shall he triumph even over this fearful assault? I was riding away, smitten with shame.—Day was just dawning; suddenly I beheld him and recognised him; he stepped out on the balcony and his diamond buckle glittered in the sun; proudly he twirled his mustache and proudly gazed around; and it seemed to me that he mocked at me above all others, that he had recognised me and that thus he pointed his hand at me, scoffing and threatening,—I seized a carbine from a Muscovite; I barely raised it to my shoulder, scarcely aimed—it went off! You know the rest!
"Cursed firearms! He who slays with the sword must take his stand and press on; he parries and flourishes; he may disarm his enemy and check his sword halfway. But with these firearms it is enough to hold the gun; an instant, a single spark——
* * * * * * * *
"Did I flee when you aimed at me from above? I levelled my eyes at the two barrels of your gun. What despair! A strange grief pinned me to the earth! Why, Gerwazy, ah why did you miss at that time? You would have done me a kindness!—evidently as a penance for my sin I must needs——"
Here his breath failed him once more.
"God knows," said the Warden, "I sincerely wished to hit you! How much blood did you shed by your one shot! How many disasters have fallen upon us and upon your family, and all of them through your guilt alone, Pan Jacek! And yet to-day, when the yagers aimed at the Count (the last of the Horeszkos, though in the female line), you preserved him; and when the Muscovites shot at me you threw me on the ground, so that you have been the saviour of us both. If it is true that you are a monk, in holy orders, then your habit shields you from my penknife. Farewell, I will set foot no more upon your threshold; our account is clear—let us leave the rest to the Lord."
Jacek stretched out his hand—but Gerwazy started back.
"Without dishonour to my noble blood," he said, "I cannot touch a hand denied by such a murder, committed for private vengeance, and not pro publico bono."
But Jacek, sinking from the pillows into the bed, turned to the Judge and grew more and more pale; he eagerly asked for the parish priest, and cried to the Warden:—
"I implore you to remain; in a moment more I shall finish; hardly have I strength to conclude—Warden—I shall die this night."
"What, brother?" cried the Judge, "I have seen your wound; it is trifling: why do you say this? Send for the priest! Perhaps it has been ill tended: I will send for the doctor; he is at the apothecary's."
"It is too late, brother," interrupted the Monk. "In the same place I have an earlier gunshot wound; I received it at Jena. It was ill healed, and now it has been irritated—there is gangrene there already. I am familiar with wounds; see how black the blood is, like soot; a doctor could do nothing. But this is a trifle; we die but once; to-morrow or to-day we must yield up our souls. Warden, thou wilt forgive me; I must die!
* * * * * * * *
"There is merit in refusing to betray your country, though your own people proclaim you a traitor! Especially for a man who had such pride as mine!
* * * * * * * *
"The name of traitor clove to me like a pestilence. The neighbours turned their faces from me, my former friends fled from me, the timid greeted me from afar and turned aside; even a mere peasant boor or a Jew, though he bowed, would, as he passed by, smite me with a sneering laugh. The word 'traitor' rang in my ears and echoed through my house and over my fields; that word from morn till dark hovered before me like a spot before a sick man's eye. And yet I was not a traitor to my country.
"The Muscovites showed by acts of violence that they regarded me as one of their partisans: they gave the Soplicas a considerable part of the dead man's estates; later the Targowica confederates wished to bestow an office upon me.176 If I had then consented to turn Muscovite!—Satan counselled it—I was already influential and rich; but if I had become a Muscovite?—The foremost magnates would have sought my favour; even my brother gentlemen—even the mob, which is so ready to disparage those of its own number, is prone to forgive those happier men who serve the Muscovites! I knew this, and yet—I could not.
* * * * * * * *
"I fled from my country! Where have I not been! what have I not suffered!
* * * * * * * *
"At last God deigned to reveal to me the one true remedy: I must reform myself and repair as much as possible what——
* * * * * * * *
"The Pantler's daughter and her husband the Wojewoda had been transported to some place in Siberia; there she died young, leaving here behind her a daughter, little Zosia. I had her brought up.
* * * * * * * *
"Perchance I slew him more through stupid arrogance than through disappointed love; so I humbly became a monk. I, once proud of my birth, I who was once a warlike hero, I bowed my head, I became a gatherer of alms, and took the name of Robak, the Worm, since like a worm in the dust——
"The evil example that I had set my countrymen, that invitation to treason, I must redeem by setting a good example, by blood and by self-sacrifice.
"I have fought for my country: where? how? I shall never tell; not for earthly glory have I run so often upon shot and steel. I like better to remember, instead of my famous, warlike exploits, my quiet, useful acts, and my sufferings, which no one——
"Often have I succeeded in penetrating into this land, bearing orders from the generals, or collecting information, or concluding agreements—the men of Galicia know this monkish cowl—and in Great Poland they know it too! For a year I toiled in a Prussian fortress, chained to a wheelbarrow; thrice the Muscovites have cut up my back with stripes, and once they had me on the road to Siberia; later the Austrians buried me in the dungeons of Spielberg, at hard labour, in carcer durum—but by a miracle the Lord God delivered me and granted that I should die among my own people, with the sacraments.
"Perchance even now, who knows? Perchance I have sinned anew! Perchance I have hastened too much the insurrection, exceeding the commands of my generals. The thought that the house of the Soplicas should be the first to take up arms, and that my kindred should raise the first banner of the Warhorse in Lithuania!—That thought … seems pure.——
"You have longed for vengeance? You have it now, for you have been the instrument of God's punishment! With your sword God cut short my plans. You have tangled the thread of the plot that had been spun for so many years! The great aim that absorbed my whole life, my last worldly feeling upon earth, which I fondled and cherished like my dearest child—that you have slain before the father's eyes, and I have forgiven you I You!——"
"Even so may God forgive you too!" interrupted the Warden. "Father Jacek, if you are now about to take the sacrament, remember that I am no Lutheran or schismatic! I know that whoever saddens the last moments of a dying man, commits sin. I will tell you something that will surely comfort you. When my late master had fallen wounded, and I was kneeling by him, bending over his breast; when, wetting my sword in his wound, I vowed vengeance, my lord shook his head and stretched out his hand towards the door, towards the place where you were standing, and drew a cross in the air; he could not speak, but he made a sign that he forgave his murderer. I understood well, but I was so furious with rage that I have never said even a word of that cross."
Here the sufferings of the sick man made further speech impossible and a long hour of silence followed. They were awaiting the priest. The thunder of hoofs was heard, and the Tavern-Keeper, out of breath, knocked at the chamber door; he brought an important letter, which he showed to Jacek. Jacek gave it to his brother and bade him read it aloud. The letter was from Fiszer,177 who was then Chief of Staff of the Polish army under Prince Joseph. It brought the news that in the Privy Council of the Emperor war had been declared, and that the Emperor was already proclaiming it over the whole world; that a General Diet had been convoked in Warsaw, and that the assembled representatives of Masovia would solemnly decree the union of Lithuania with the Grand Duchy.
Jacek, as he listened, repeated prayers in a low voice, and, clasping to his breast the consecrated candle, raised to Heaven his eyes, now kindled with hope, and shed a flood of last joyous tears. "Now, O Lord," he said, "let thy servant depart in peace!" All kneeled; and then a bell rang at the door, a token that the priest had arrived with the body of our Lord.
Night was just departing, and across the milky sky were streaming the first rosy beams of the sun: they entered through the window panes like diamond arrows, and fell upon the bed; they surrounded the head of the sick man, wreathing with gold his face and his temples, so that he shone like a saint in a fiery crown.
BOOK XI.—THE YEAR 1812
Spring omens—The entrance of the armies—Religious services—Official rehabilitation of the late Jacek Soplica—From the talk between Gerwazy and Protazy a speedy ending of the lawsuit may be inferred—A love affair between an uhlan and a girl—The quarrel over Bobtail and Falcon is at last settled—Thereupon the guests gather for the banquet—The presentation of the betrothed couples to the generals.
MEMORABLE year! Happy is he who beheld thee in our land! The folk still call thee the year of harvest, but the soldiers the year of war; old men still love to tell tales of thee and poets still dream of thee. Thou hadst long been heralded by the marvel in the sky and preceded by a vague rumour among the folk; with the coming of the spring sun the hearts of the Lithuanians were seized with a certain strange foreboding, as if the end of the world were approaching—by a certain yearning and joyous expectation.
In the spring, when the cattle were driven forth for the first time, men noticed that, though famished and lean, they did not run to the young corn179 that already made gay the fields, but lay down on the ploughed land, and, drooping their heads, either lowed or chewed the cud of their winter food.
The villagers too, as they ploughed for the spring grain, did not show their wonted joy in the end of the long winter; they did not sing songs, but worked lazily, as though forgetful of the sowing and the harvest. As they harrowed, at every step they checked their oxen and their nags, and gazed anxiously towards the west, as though from this direction some marvel were about to appear. And they regarded anxiously the birds, which were returning home; for already the stork had flown back to its native pine and had spread its white wings, the early standard of spring; and after it the swallows, coming on in noisy regiments, gathered above the waters, and from the frozen earth collected mud for their tiny houses. At evening in the thickets one could hear the calling of the woodcocks as they rose from the earth; and flocks of wild geese honked over the forest and, wearied, settled noisily down to feed; and in the depths of the dark heaven the cranes kept up a continuous clamour. Hearing this, the night watchmen would ask in dread whence came such disorder in the winged kingdom, and what storm had driven forth these birds so early.
And now new swarms, like flocks of finches, plover, and starlings, swarms of bright plumes and pennons shone bright upon the hills and came down into the meadows. It was cavalry! In strange array, and arms never seen before, came regiment after regiment; and straight across the country, like melted snows, the iron-shod ranks flowed along the roads. From the forests emerged black shakos, a row of bayonets glittered, and the infantry, countless as ants, swarmed forth.
All were turned towards the north; you would have said that at that time, coming from the Sunny South180 and following the birds, men too were entering our land, driven on by the force of some instinct that they could not comprehend.
Steeds, men, cannon, eagles flowed on day and night; here and there fires glowed in the sky; the earth trembled, in the distance one could hear the rolling of thunder.—
War! war! There was no corner in the Lithuanian land to which its roar did not reach; amid dark forests, the peasant, whose grandfathers and kinsmen had died without seeing beyond the boundaries of the wood, who understood no other cries in the sky than those of the winds, and none on earth except the roaring of beasts, who had seen no other guests than his fellow-woodsmen, now beheld how a strange glare flamed in the sky—in the forest there was a crash—that was a cannon ball that had wandered from the battlefield and was seeking a path in the wood, tearing up stumps and cutting through boughs. The hoary, bearded bison trembled in his mossy lair and bristled up his long shaggy mane; he half rose, resting on his forelegs, and, shaking his beard, he gazed in amazement at the sparks suddenly glittering amid the brushwood: this was a stray bombshell that twirled and whirled and hissed, and at last broke with a roar like thunder; the bison for the first time in his life was terrified and fled to take refuge in deeper hiding.
"A battle! Where? In what direction?" asked the young men, as they seized their arms; the women raised their hands in prayer to Heaven. All, sure of victory, cried out with tears in their eyes: "God is with Napoleon and Napoleon is with us!"
O spring! Happy is he who beheld thee then in our country! Memorable spring of war, spring of harvest! O spring, happy is he who beheld how thou didst bloom with corn and grass, but glittered with men; how thou wert rich in events and big with hope! I see thee still, fair phantom of my dream! Born in slavery and chained in my swaddling bands, I have had but one such spring in my whole life.
Soplicowo lay close by the highway along which two generals were pressing forward from the Niemen. Our own Prince Joseph and Jerome, King of Westphalia,181 had already occupied Lithuania from Grodno to Slonim, when the King issued orders to give the army three days of repose. But the Polish soldiers, despite their hardships, murmured because the King would not permit them to march on; so eager were they to overtake the Muscovites at the earliest possible moment.
The main staff of the Prince had halted in the town near by, but in Soplicowo was a camp of forty thousand men, and with them Generals Dombrowski,182 Kniaziewicz,183 Malachowski,184 Giedrojc,185 and Grabowski,186 with their staffs.
As it was late when they arrived, each man chose quarters wherever he could, either in the old castle or in the mansion; soon orders had been issued and guards stationed, and each weary man went to his chamber for sleep. As night drew on all became quiet, both camp, mansion, and field; one could see only the patrols wandering about like shadows, and here and there the flickering of the camp fires; one could hear only the watchwords being passed about from post to post in the army.
All slept, the master of the house, the generals, and the soldiers; the eyes of the Seneschal alone were not closed in sweet slumber. For on the morrow the Seneschal had to arrange a banquet by which he would fain make famous the house of the Soplicas for ever and ever; a banquet worthy of guests so dear to Polish hearts, and in keeping with the great solemnity of the day, which was both a church holiday and a family holiday; on the morrow the betrothals of three couples were to take place. Moreover, General Dombrowski had made known that evening that he wished to have a Polish dinner.
Though the hour was late, the Seneschal had gathered cooks from the neighbourhood with all possible speed; there were five of them working under his direction. As head cook he had girt him with a white apron, donned a nightcap, and tucked up his sleeves to the elbows. In one hand he held a fly-flapper, and with it he drove away insects of all sorts, which were settling greedily on the dainties; with the other hand he put on his well-wiped spectacles, took a book from his bosom, unwrapped it, and opened it.
This book was entitled The Perfect Cook.187 Herein were described in detail all the dishes peculiar to the Polish table: with its aid the Count of Tenczyn was wont to give those banquets in the Italian land at which the Holy Father Urban VIII. marvelled;188 by its aid, later on, Karol My-dear-friend Radziwill,189 when he entertained King Stanislaw at Nieswiez, arranged that memorable feast the fame of which still lives throughout Lithuania in popular tales.
What the Seneschal read, understood, and proclaimed, that straightway did the skilful cooks carry out. The work seethed: fifty knives clattered on the tables; scullions black as demons rushed about, some carrying wood, others pails of milk and wine; they poured them into kettles, spiders, and stew-pans, and the steam burst forth. Two scullions sat by the stove and puffed at the bellows; the Seneschal, the more easily to kindle the fire, had given orders to have melted butter poured on the wood—this bit of extravagance is permitted in a well-to-do household. The scullions stuffed bundles of dry brushwood into the fire; others of them placed upon spits immense roasts of beef and venison, and haunches of wild boars and of stags; still others were plucking whole heaps of birds of all sorts— clouds of down flew about, and grouse, heath cocks, and hens were stripped bare. But there were very few hens: since the attack that bloodthirsty Buzzard Dobrzynski had made on the hencoop at the time of the foray, when he had annihilated Zosia's establishment, without leaving a bit for medicine,190 Soplicowo, once famous for its poultry, had not yet managed to blossom out again with new birds. For the rest, there was a great abundance of all the sorts of meats that could be gathered from the house and from the butchers' shops, from the woods and from the neighbours, from near and from far: you would have said that the only thing lacking was bird's milk. The two things that a generous man requires in order to give a feast were united at Soplicowo: plenty and art.
Already the solemn day of the Most Holy Lady of Flowers191 was approaching; the weather was lovely, the hour early; the clear sky was extended about the earth like a calm, hanging, concavo-convex sea. A few stars shone from its depths, like pearls from the sea bottom, seen through waves; on one side a little white cloud, all alone, drifted along and buried its wings in the azure, like the vanishing pinions of a guardian angel, who, detained through the night by the prayers of men, has been belated, and is hastening to return to his fellow-denizens of heaven.
Already the last pearls of the stars had grown dim and been extinguished in the depths of the sky, and the centre of the sky's brow was growing pale; its right temple, reposing on a pillow of shadow, was still swarthy, but its left grew ever rosier; but farther off the horizon line parted like a broad eyelid, and in the centre one could see the white of an eye, one could see the iris and the pupil—now a ray darted forth and circled and shimmered over the rounded heavens, and hung in the white cloud like a golden arrow. At this beam, at this signal of day, a cluster of fires flew forth, crossing one another a thousand times on the sphere of the skies—and the eye of the sun rose up—still somewhat sleepy, it blinked and trembled and shook its gleaming lashes; it glittered with seven tints at once: at first sapphire, it straightway turned blood red like a ruby, and yellow as a topaz; next it sparkled transparent as crystal, then was radiant as a diamond; finally it became the colour of pure flame, like a great moon, or like a twinkling star: thus over the measureless heaven advanced the solitary sun.
To-day from the whole neighbourhood the Lithuanian populace had gathered before sunrise around the chapel, as if to hear some new marvel proclaimed. This gathering was due in part to the piety of the folk and in part to curiosity; for to-day at Soplicowo the generals were to attend service, those famous captains of our legions, whose names the folk knew and honoured as those of patron saints; all whose wanderings, cam-paigns, and battles were the people's gospel throughout Lithuania.
Now some officers and a throng of soldiers arrived. The folk surrounded them and gazed upon them, and they could hardly believe their eyes when they beheld their fellow-countrymen wearing uniforms, and carrying arms—free, and speaking the Polish language!
The mass began. The little sanctuary could not contain the entire throng; the folk kneeled on the grass, gazing at the door of the chapel, and bared their heads. The white or yellow hair of the Lithuanian folk was gilded like a field of ripe grain; here and there a maiden's fair head, decked with fresh flowers or with peacock's feathers, and with ribbons flowing loose from her braided hair, blossomed among the men's heads like a corn-flower or poppy amid the wheat. The kneeling, many-coloured throng covered the plain, and at the sound of the bell, as though at a breath of wind, all heads bent down like ears of corn on a field.
To-day the village girls had brought to the altar of the Virgin Mother the first tribute of spring—fresh sheaves of greenery; everything was decked with nosegays and garlands—the altar, the image, and even the belfry and the galleries. Sometimes a morning zephyr, stirring from the east, would tear down the garlands and throw them upon the brows of the kneeling worshippers, and would spread fragrance abroad as from a priest's censer.
When the mass and the sermon were over in the church, there came forth at the head of the whole gathering the Chamberlain, who had recently been unanimously chosen Marshal of the Confederacy192 by the electoral assembly of the district. He wore the uniform of the wojewodeship, a tunic embroidered with gold, a kontusz of gros-de-Tours with a fringe, and a massive brocade belt, on which hung a sabre with a hilt of lizard skin. At his neck shone a large diamond pin; his cap was white, and on it was a large tuft of costly feathers, the crests of white herons. (Only on festival days is worn so rich an ornament, every little feather of which is worth a ducat.) Thus adorned, he stepped up on a mound before the church; the villagers and soldiers crowded around him: he spoke:—
"Brothers, the priest has proclaimed to you from the pulpit the liberty that the Emperor-King has already restored to the Kingdom, and is now restoring to the Duchy of Lithuania, to all Poland; you have heard the official decrees and the letters convening a General Diet. I have only a few words to say to the company on a matter that pertains to the Soplica family, the lords of this district.
"All the neighbourhood remembers the crime committed here by the deceased Pan Jacek Soplica; but, since you all know of his sins, it is time to proclaim his merits, also, before the world. Here are present the generals of our armies, from whom I have heard all that I tell you. This Jacek did not die at Rome, as was reported, but only changed his former way of life, his calling, and his name; and all his offences against God and his country he has blotted out by his holy life and by great deeds.
"It was he who at Hohenlinden,193 when General Richepanse, half vanquished, was already preparing to retreat, not knowing that Kniaziewicz was on the way to his rescue—it was he, Jacek, called Robak, who amid spears and swords brought to Richepanse from Kniaziewicz letters announcing that our men were attacking the enemy in the rear. Later, in Spain, when our uhlans had taken the fortified ridge of Somosierra,194 he was wounded twice by the side of Kozietulski! Following this, as an emissary, with secret instructions, he traversed various quarters of our land, in order to watch the currents of popular feeling and to found and build up secret societies. Finally, at Soplicowo, in the home of his fathers, while he was paving the way for an insurrection, he perished in a foray. The news of his death arrived in Warsaw just at the moment when His Majesty the Emperor deigned to bestow on him as a reward for his former heroic deeds the knightly badge of the Legion of Honour.
"Therefore, taking into consideration all these matters, I, as representative of the authority of the wojewodeship, proclaim to you with my confederate's staff of office that Jacek by faithful service and by the favour of the Emperor has removed the blot of infamy from his name, and has won back his honour, taking once more his place in the ranks of true patriots. So whoever dares to speak a word at any time to the family of the deceased Jacek of the offence that he long since atoned for, that man will be liable, as a penalty for such a taunt, to gravis notae macula,195 according to the words of the statutes, which thus punish both militem and skartabell196 if he spread calumny against a citizen of the Commonwealth—and since general equality before the law has now been proclaimed, therefore Article 3 is likewise binding on townsfolk and serfs.197 This decree of the Marshal the Scribe will enter in the acts of the General Confederation, and the Apparitor will proclaim it.
"As for the cross of the Legion of Honour, the fact that it arrived late does not derogate from its glory; if it could not serve Jacek as an adornment, let it serve as a memorial of him: I hang it on his grave. For three days it will hang there, then it will be deposited in the chapel, as a votum for the Virgin."
So saying, he took the badge from its case and hung on the modest cross that marked the grave a red ribbon knotted into a cockade, and a starry white cross with a golden crown; the rays of the star shone in the sunlight like the last gleam of Jacek's earthly glory. Meanwhile the kneeling folk repeated the Angelus, praying for the eternal repose of the sinner; the Judge walked about among the guests and the throng of villagers and invited all to the banquet at Soplicowo.
But on the bench of turf before the house two old men had taken their seats, each holding on his knees a tankard full of mead. They gazed into the garden, where amid the buds of bright-coloured poppy stood an uhlan like a sunflower, wearing a glittering head-dress adorned with gilded metal and with a cock's feather; near him a little maid in a garment green as the lowly rue raised eyes blue as forget-me-nots towards the eyes of the youth. Farther on girls were plucking flowers among the beds, purposely turning away their heads from the lovers, in order not to embarrass their talk together.
But the old men, as they drank their mead and passed from hand to hand a bark snuffbox, continued their chat.
"Yes, yes, my dear Protazy," said Gerwazy the Warden. "Yes, yes, my dear Gerwazy," said Protazy the Apparitor. "Yes, yes indeed," they repeated in unison over and over again, nodding their heads in time to the words; finally the Apparitor spoke:—
"That our lawsuit has a strange conclusion I do not deny; however, there are precedents. I remember lawsuits in which worse outrages were committed than in ours, and yet marriage articles ended the whole trouble: in this way Lopot was reconciled to the Borzdobohaty family, the Krepsztuls with the Kupsces, Putrament with Pikturna, Mackiewicz with the Odynieces, and Turno with the Kwileckis. What am I saying! The Poles used to have worse broils with Lithuania than the Horeszkos with the Soplica family; but when Queen Jadwiga198 took the matter under advisement, then that difficulty too was settled out of court. It is a good thing when the parties have maidens or widows to give in marriage; then a compromise is always ready at hand. The longest suits are ordinarily with the Catholic clergy or with close kindred, for then the cases cannot be concluded by marriage. Hence come the endless quarrels between the Lechites and the Russians, who proceed from Lech and Rus,199 two born brothers; hence also there were so many prolonged lawsuits between the Lithuanians and the Knights of the Cross, until Jagiello finally won. Hence finally that famous lawsuit of the Rymszas and the Dominicans long pendebat on the calendar, until finally Father Dymsza, the syndic of the convent, won the case: whence the 'proverb, the Lord God is greater than Lord Rymsza. And I may add, mead is better than the penknife."
So saying, he drank off a tankard to the health of the Warden.
"True, true!" replied Gerwazy with emotion. "Strange have been the fortunes of our beloved Kingdom and of our Lithuania! They are like a true married pair! God joined them, and the devil divides them; God has his own and the devil has his own! Ah, dear brother Protazy, that our eyes should see this—that these brethren from the Kingdom should visit us once more! I served with them years ago, and remember that bold confederates came from their country! If only my deceased lord the Pantler had lived to see this hour! O Jacek, Jacek!—but why should we lament? Now Lithuania will soon be reunited to the Kingdom, and therewith all is forgiven and forgotten."
"And it is strange," said Protazy, "that in regard to this Zosia, for whose hand our Thaddeus is now suing, a year ago there was an omen, as it were a sign from Heaven."
"Panna Sophia she should be called," interrupted the Warden, "for she is now grown up, and is no longer a little girl; besides that, she comes of the blood of dignitaries; she is the granddaughter of the Pantler."
"Well, it was an omen prophetic of her fate," Protazy concluded; "I beheld the omen with my own eyes. A year ago our servants were sitting here on a holiday, drinking mead, and we saw—whack! there fell from the eaves two sparrows fighting, both old males. One, which was somewhat the younger, had a grey throat, the other a black one; they continued to scuffle about the yard, turning over and over, until they were buried in dust. We gazed at them, and meanwhile the servants whispered to one another that the black one must stand for the Horeszko, and the other for the Soplica. So, whenever the grey one was on top, they would cry, 'Vivat Soplica; foh, the Horeszko cowards!' but when it fell, they shouted, 'Get up, Soplica; don't give in to the magnate—that's shameful for a gentleman!' So we laughed and waited to see which would beat; but suddenly little Zosia, moved with pity for the birds, ran up and covered those warriors with her tiny hand: they still fought in her hands till the feathers flew, such was the fury of those little scamps. The old wives, looking at Zosia, quietly passed the word about, that it would certainly be that girl's destiny to reconcile two families long at variance. So I see that the old wives' omen has to-day come true. To be sure, at that time they had in mind the Count, and not Thaddeus."
To this the Warden replied: "There are strange things in the world; who can fathom them all! I too will tell you, sir, something which, though not so marvellous as that omen, is nevertheless hard to understand. You know that in old days I should have been glad to drown the Soplica family in a spoonful of water; and yet of this young fellow Thaddeus I was always immensely fond, from his childhood up. I took nonce that whenever he got into a fight with the other lads he always beat them; so, every time that he came to the castle, I kept stirring him up to difficult feats. He succeeded in everything, whether he set out to dislodge the doves from the tower, or to pluck the mistletoe from the oak, or to tear down a crow's nest from the highest pine: he was equal to anything. I thought to myself—that boy was born under a happy star; too bad that he is a Soplica! Who would have guessed that in him I was to greet the owner of the castle, the husband of Panna Sophia, Her Grace my Lady!"
Here they broke off their conversation, but, deep in thought, they continued to drink; one could only hear now and then these brief words, "Yes, yes, Gerwazy"; "Yes, Protazy."
The bench adjoined the kitchen, the windows of which were standing open and pouring forth smoke as from a conflagration; at last between the clouds of smoke, like a white dove, flashed the shining nightcap of the head cook. The Seneschal, putting his head out of the kitchen window, above the heads of the old men, listened in silence to their talk, and finally handed them some biscuits in a saucer, with the remark:—
"Have something to eat with your mead, and I will tell you a curious story of a quarrel that seemed likely to end in a bloody fight, when Rejtan, hunting in the depths of the forests of Naliboki, played a trick on the Prince de Nassau. This trick he nearly atoned for with his own life; I made up the gentlemen's quarrel, as I will tell you."
But the Seneschal's story was interrupted by the cooks, who inquired whom he would have set the table.
The Seneschal withdrew, and the old men, having finished their mead, turned their thoughtful eyes towards the centre of the garden, where that handsome uhlan was talking with the young lady. At that moment the uhlan, taking her hand in his left (his right hung in a sling, so that he was evidently wounded), addressed the lady with these words:—
"Sophia, you positively must tell me this; before we exchange rings, I must be sure of it. What does it matter that last winter you were prepared to give me your promise? I did not accept your promise then, for what did I care for such a forced promise? I had then stayed in Soplicowo but a very short time, and I was not so vain as to flatter myself that by my mere glance I could awaken love in you. I am no braggart; I wished by my own merits to win your regard, even though I might have to wait long for it. Now you are so gracious as to repeat your promise—how have I ever deserved such favour? Perhaps you are taking me, Zosia, not so much from attachment, as because your uncle and aunt are urging you to do so; but marriage, Zosia, is a very serious matter: take counsel of your own heart and do not hearken to any one's authority, either to your uncle's threats or to your aunt's entreaties. If you feel for me nothing but kindness, we may postpone this betrothal for a time; I do not wish to bind your will: let us wait, Zosia. There is no reason for haste, especially since, yesterday evening, I received orders to remain here in Lithuania as instructor in the local regiment, until I am healed of my wounds. Well, my beloved Zosia?"
Raising her head, and looking timidly into his eyes, Zosia replied:—
"I do not now remember perfectly what happened so long ago; I know that everybody told me that I must marry you. I always assent to the will of Heaven and the will of my elders." Then, lowering her eyes, she added: "Before your departure, if you remember, when Father Robak died on that stormy night, I saw that you were dreadfully sorry to leave us. You had tears in your eyes: those tears, I tell you truly, fell deep into my heart; since then I have trusted your word, that you were fond of me. Whenever I have uttered a prayer for your success, I have always had before my eyes the picture of you with those great shining tears. Later the Chamberlain's wife went to Wilno and took me there for the winter; but I longed for Soplicowo and for that little room where you met me for the first time one evening by the table, and where you later bade me farewell. In some strange way the memory of you, like seeds of kale planted in the fall, all through the winter sprouted in my heart, so that, as I tell you, I continually longed for that little room; and something whispered to me that I should find you there again; and so it has happened. While thinking of this, I often had your name on my lips as well—this was at Wilno in the carnival season; the girls said that I was in love. So now, if I love any one, it must surely be you."
Thaddeus, happy at such a proof of affection, took her arm and pressed it to him, and they left the garden for the lady's chamber, for that room that Thaddeus had occupied ten years before.
At this moment the Notary was tarrying there in marvellous array, and proffering his services to his betrothed lady: he bustled about and handed her signet rings, little chains, gallipots and bottles and powders and patches; gay at heart, he gazed in triumph on the young damsel. The young damsel had finished making her toilet, and was sitting before the mirror taking counsel of the Graces; but the maids were still toiling over her, some with curling irons in their hands were freshening the limp ringlets of her tresses, others, on their knees, were working at a flounce.
While the Notary was thus tarrying with his betrothed, a scullion rapped on the window to attract his attention; they had caught sight of a rabbit. The rabbit, stealing out of the willows, had whisked over the meadow and leapt into the garden amid the growing vegetables; there it was seated, and it was an easy matter to fright it from the cabbage patch and to course it, stationing the hounds on the narrow path that it must take. The Assessor ran up, pulling Falcon by the collar; the Notary hurried after him, calling to Bobtail. The Seneschal made them both stand with their dogs near the fence, while he himself with his fly-flapper set out for the garden, and by trampling, whistling, and clapping his hands greatly terrified the poor beast. The huntsmen, each holding his hound by the collar, pointed their fingers to the spot from which the hare was to appear, and made a soft smacking sound with their lips; the hounds pricked up their ears, snuffed the wind with their muzzles and trembled impatiently, like two arrows set on one string. All at once the Seneschal shouted, "At him," and the hare darted from behind the fence into the meadow, the hounds after him; and speedily, without making a single turn, Falcon and Bobtail together fell upon the grey rabbit from opposite sides at the same instant, like the two wings of a bird, and buried their teeth like talons in his back. The rabbit gave one cry, like a newborn babe, pitifully! The huntsmen ran up; it already lay breathless, and the hounds were tearing the white fur beneath its belly.
The huntsmen were patting their dogs, but meanwhile while the Seneschal, drawing the hunting-knife that hung at his girdle, cut off the feet and said:—
"To-day each dog shall receive an equal fee, for they have gained equal glory; equal was their fleetness and equal was their toil; worthy is the palace of Pac, and worthy is Pac of the palace;200 worthy are the huntsmen of the hounds, and worthy are the hounds of the huntsmen. Thus is ended your long and furious quarrel; I, whom you appointed your judge and stakeholder, at last give my verdict: you both have triumphed. I return your stakes; let each man keep his own, and do you both sign the treaty."
At the summons of the old man the huntsmen turned beaming faces on each other and joined their long parted right hands. Then the Notary spoke:—
"My stake was a horse with its caparison; I also agreed before the district authorities to deposit my ring as a fee for the judge; a forfeit once pledged cannot be withdrawn. Let the Seneschal accept the ring as a reminder of this incident, and let him have engraved on it either his own name or, if he prefers, the armorial bearings of the Hreczechas; the carnelian is smooth, the gold eleven carats fine. The uhlans have now commandeered my horse for their troop, but the caparison remains in my possession; every expert praises this caparison, that it is strong and comfortable, and pretty as a picture. The saddle is narrow, in the Turko-Cossack style; in front it has a pommel, and in the pommel are set precious stones; the seat is covered with a damask pad. And when you leap into your place, you rest on that soft down as comfortably as in a bed; and when you start to gallop"—here the Notary Bolesta, who, as is well known, was extremely fond of gestures, spread out his legs as though he were leaping on a horse, and then, imitating a gallop, he swayed slowly to and fro—"and when you start to gallop, then light flashes from the housing as though gold were dripping from your charger, for the side bands are thickly set with gold and the broad silver stirrups are gilded; on the straps of the bit and on the bridle glitter buttons of mother of pearl, and from the breastplate hangs a crescent shaped like Leliwa,201 that is, like the new moon. This whole splendid outfit was captured, as rumour reports, in the battle of Podhajce,202 from a certain Turkish noble of very high station. Accept it, Assessor, as a proof of my esteem."
Happy in his gift, the Assessor replied:—
"My stake was the gift that I once received from Prince Sanguszko—my elegant dog-collars, covered with lizard-skin, with rings of gold, and my leash woven of silk, the workmanship of which is as precious as the jewel that glitters upon it. That outfit I wanted to leave as an inheritance for my children; I shall surely have children, for you know that I am to be married to-day. But, my dear Notary, I beg you humbly that you will deign to accept that outfit in exchange for your rich caparison, and as a reminder of the quarrel that was prolonged for so many years and has finally been concluded in a manner honourable to us both.—May harmony flourish between us!"
So they returned home, to proclaim at table that the quarrel between Bobtail and Falcon had been concluded.
There was a report that the Seneschal had raised that rabbit in the house and slyly let it out into the garden, in order to make the huntsmen friends by means of too easy a prey. The old man played his trick so mysteriously that he completely fooled all Soplicowo. A scullion, some years later, whispered a word of this, wishing to embroil once more the Assessor and the Notary; but in vain did he spread abroad reports slanderous to the hounds—the Seneschal denied the story, and nobody believed the scullion.
The guests were already assembled in the great hall of the castle, and were conversing around the table as they awaited the banquet, when the Judge entered in the uniform of a wojewoda, escorting Thaddeus and Sophia. Thaddeus, raising his left hand to his forehead, saluted his superior officers with a military bow. Sophia, lowering her eyes and blushing, greeted the guests with a curtsy (she had been taught by Telimena how to curtsy gracefully). On her head she wore a wreath, as a betrothed maiden; for the rest, her costume was the same that she had worn that morning in the chapel, when she brought in her spring sheaf for the Virgin Mary. She had reaped once more, for the guests, a fresh sheaf of greenery, and with one hand she distributed flowers and grasses from it; with the other she adjusted on her head her glittering sickle. The leaders, kissing her hands, took the posies; Zosia curtsied once more to all in turn, her cheeks glowing.
Then General Kniaziewicz took her by the shoulders, and, imprinting a fatherly kiss on her brow, lifted the girl aloft and set her on the table; all clapped their hands and shouted "Bravo!" being charmed by the girl's figure and bearing, and more particularly by her Lithuanian village attire; since for these famous captains, who in their roving life had wandered so long in foreign lands, there was a marvellous charm in the national costume, which reminded them both of the years of their youth and of their loves of long ago: so almost with tears they gathered around the table and gazed eagerly upon her. Some asked Zosia to raise her head and show her eyes; others begged her to be so kind as to turn around—the bashful girl turned around, but covered her eyes with her hands. Thaddeus looked on gaily and rubbed his hands.
Whether some one had counselled Zosia to make her appearance in such garments, or whether she knew by instinct (for a girl always guesses by instinct what is becoming to her), suffice it to say that this morning for the first time in her life Zosia had been scolded for obstinacy by Telimena, since she had refused to put on fashionable attire: at last by her tears she had prevailed on them to let her remain in this village costume.
She wore a long white underskirt and a short gown of green camlet with a pink border; the bodice was also of green, laced crosswise with pink ribbons from the waist to the neck; under it her bosom took refuge like a bud beneath leaves. On her shoulders shone the full white sleeves of the shirt, like the wings of a butterfly stretched for flight; at the wrist they were gathered and fastened with a ribbon; her throat was also encircled by the close-fitting shirt, the collar of which was fastened with a pink knot. Her earrings were artistically carved out of cherry stones; in their making Buzzard Dobrzynski had taken huge pride; they represented two hearts with dart and flame, and had been a present to Zosia when Buzzard was paying his court to her. About her collar hung two strings of amber beads, and on her temples was a wreath of green rosemary; the ribbons that decked her tresses Zosia had thrown back over her shoulders. On her brow, as is the custom with reapers, she had fastened a curved sickle, freshly polished by cutting grasses, bright as the new moon above the brow of Diana.
All admired and clapped their hands. One of the officers took from his pocket a portfolio containing bundles of papers; he undid them, sharpened his pencil, moistened it with his lips, gazed at Zosia, and began to draw. Hardly had the Judge beheld the papers and pencils, when he recognised the artist, though he had been greatly changed by his colonel's uniform, his rich epaulets, his truly uhlan-like bearing, his blackened mustache, and a small Spanish beard. The Judge recognised the Count: "How are you, Your Excellency? So you keep a travelling painter's kit even in your cartridge box!" In very truth it was the young Count. He was a soldier of no long standing, but since he had a large income and had fitted out a whole troop of cavalry at his own expense, and had borne himself admirably in the very first battle, the Emperor had to-day just appointed him a colonel. So the Judge greeted the Count and congratulated him on his promotion, but the Count paid no attention, and continued to draw diligently.
In the meantime a second betrothed pair had entered. The Assessor, once in the service of the Tsar, had entered that of Napoleon; he had a company of gendarmes under his command, and, although he had been in office hardly twelve hours, he had already donned a dark blue uniform with Polish facings, and dragged behind him a curved sabre, and clinked his spurs. By his side, with dignified steps, walked his beloved, dressed with great magnificence, Tekla Hreczecha: for the Assessor had long ago abandoned Telimena, and, the more deeply to wound that coquette, he had turned his heart's devotion to the Seneschal's daughter. The bride was not over young, she had perhaps already seen half a century go by; but she was a good housekeeper and a dignified and well-to-do person, for, aside from her ancestral village, her dowry had been increased by a little sum presented to her by the Judge.
For the third pair they waited vainly, a long time. The Judge grew impatient and sent servants; they returned and reported that the third bridegroom, the Notary, when looking for the rabbit, had lost his wedding ring, and was now looking for it in the meadow; meanwhile the Notary's lady was still at her dressing-table, and, though she was herself hurrying and was being aided by the serving women, she had been absolutely unable to finish her toilet: she would scarcely be ready by four o'clock.
BOOK XII.—LET US LOVE ONE ANOTHER!
The last old-Polish banquet—The state centrepiece—Explanation of its figures—Its transformations—Dombrowski receives a present—More of Penknife—Kniaziewicz receives a present—The first official act of Thaddeus on receiving his inheritance—Remarks of Gerwazy—The concert of concerts—The polonaise—Let us love one another!
FINALLY with a crash the doors of the hall were thrown wide open, and the Seneschal entered, wearing a cap, and with his head held high; he did not greet the company nor take his place at the table, for to-day the Seneschal emerged in a new character, as Marshal of the Court; he bore a wand in sign of office, and with this wand he indicated to each in turn his place and showed the guests their seats. First of all, as the highest in authority in the wojewodeship, the Chamberlain-Marshal took the place of honour, a velvet chair with ivory arms; next him on the right sat General Dombrowski, and on the left Kniaziewicz, Pac,203 and Malachowski. Amid this company the Chamberlain's wife had her seat; farther on other ladies, officers, magnates, country gentry, and neighbours, men and women alternately, all took places in order as the Seneschal indicated.
The Judge, with a bow, withdrew from the banquet; in the yard he was entertaining a throng of peasants, whom he had gathered at a table a furlong in length; he himself sat at one end and the parish priest at the other. Thaddeus and Sophia did not take seats at the table; being occupied with serving the peasants, they ate as they walked. Such was the ancient custom—that new owners of a farm, at the first feast, should wait on the common folk.
Meanwhile the guests, as in the castle hall they awaited the bringing in of the food, gazed with amazement at the great centrepiece, the metal and the workmanship of which were equally precious. There is a tradition that Prince Radziwill the Orphan204 had this set made to order in Venice, and had it decorated in Polish style according to his own ideas. The centrepiece had later been carried off in the time of the Swedish wars,205 and had found its way in some mysterious manner into this country gentleman's mansion; to-day it had been brought forth from the treasury and it now occupied the middle of the table, forming an immense circle, like a coach wheel.
The centrepiece, which was coated from rim to rim with froth and sugar white as snow, counterfeited marvellously well a winter landscape. In the centre a huge grove of confections showed dark; on the sides were houses which seemed to form peasant villages and hamlets of gentry, and which were coated, not with hoar frost, but with sugary froth; the edges were decorated with little porcelain figures in Polish costumes: like actors on a stage, they were evidently representing some striking event; their gestures were artistically reproduced, the colours were individual; they lacked only voice—for the rest they seemed to be alive.
"What is it that they represent?" asked the curious guests; whereupon the Seneschal, raising his wand, spoke as follows (meanwhile brandy was being served, in preparation for dinner):—
"With your permission, honoured gentlemen and guests, those persons whom you see there in countless numbers represent the progress of a Polish district diet, its consultations, voting, triumphs, and disputes; I myself guessed the meaning of this scene, and I will explain it to the company.
"There on the right may be seen a numerous assembly of gentry: they have evidently been invited to a banquet, preceding the diet; the board is waiting ready set, but no one is showing the guests their seats; they are standing in groups, and each group is deep in discussion. Notice that in the centre of each group stands a man from whose parted lips, wide-open eyes, and restless hands you may see that he is an orator and is expounding something, that he is explaining it with his finger and marking it on his palm. These orators are recommending their candidates with various success, as may be seen from the bearing of the brother gentlemen.
"You may be sure that there in the second group the gentry are listening with attention: this good man has tucked his hands into his belt and has pricked up his ears; that other is holding his hand to his ear and is silently twirling his mustache; he is evidently gathering in the words and storing them up in his memory. The orator takes solid comfort in seeing that his hearers are converted; he strokes his pocket, for he already has their votes in his pocket.
"But in the third gathering the situation is quite different: here the orator must catch his auditors by their belts—notice how they are pulling away and turning aside their ears; notice how this auditor bristles with wrath; he has raised his arms and is threatening the orator and stopping his mouth; he has evidently heard praise showered on his opponent. That other man has bent down his brow like a bull; you might think him about to toss the orator on his horns. This party are drawing their sabres, and those others have started to flee.
"One gentleman stands silent and alone between the groups; he is evidently a non-partisan and is timidly hesitating for whom to give his vote! He does not know, and is at odds with himself; he leaves it to chance—he has lifted up his hands and extended his thumbs; with his eyes shut he aims nail against nail; evidently he will trust his vote to fortune; if the thumbs meet, he will cast an affirmative ballot, but if they miss he will deposit a negative.
"On the left is another scene, a convent refectory, transformed into the assembly hall of the gentry. The older men are seated in a row on benches; the younger are standing and looking curiously over their heads towards the centre; in the centre stands the Marshal, holding the urn in his hands; he is counting the balls, and the gentry devour them with their eyes; he has just shaken out the last one: the Apparitors raise their hands and announce the name of the elected official.
"One gentlemen has no respect for the general concord: see, he has thrust in his head from the window of the refectory kitchen; see his wide-open eyes, how insolently he stares; he has opened his mouth as though he wanted to eat up the whole roomful: it is easy to guess that this gentlemen has shouted 'Veto!' See how at that sudden challenge to a quarrel the throng is crowding to the door; they are evidently on their way to the kitchen; they have drawn their swords, and a bloody fight is sure to break out.
"But there in the corridor, sirs, pray notice that reverend old priest advancing in his chasuble; that is the Prior bringing the Host from the altar, while a boy in a surplice rings a bell and asks all to give way. The gentry at once sheathe their sabres, cross themselves, and kneel; but the priest turns in the direction whence a clink of arms is still heard: soon he will arrive, and at once he will calm and reconcile all.
"Ah, you young men, do not remember this, how among our turbulent, self-willed gentry, always under arms though they were, no police were ever needed: while the true faith flourished, laws were respected; there was liberty with order and glory along with plenty I In other lands, I hear, the government maintains soldiers and all sorts of policemen, gendarmes, and constables. But if the sword alone guards the public security, then I shall never believe that liberty can exist in those lands."
Suddenly, tapping his snuffbox, the Chamberlain said:—
"Seneschal, I pray you, postpone these stories until later; this diet is a curious thing, to be sure, but we are hungry; pray, sir, have them bring in the dinner."
Bending down his wand to the floor, the Seneschal replied:—
"Your Excellency, pray grant me this indulgence; I will speedily finish with the last scene of the district diets. Here is the new Marshal, borne out of the refectory on the shoulders of his partisans; see how the brother gentlemen are throwing up their caps and standing with open mouths—vivats! But there on the other side lingers the outvoted candidate, all alone, with his cap pulled down over his gloomy brow; his wife is waiting in front of her house, and has guessed what is going on. Poor woman, now she is fainting in the arms of her maid! Poor woman, she was to have received the title of Right Honourable, but now she is left just Honourable for three more years!"
Here the Seneschal concluded his description, and gave a sign with his wand; immediately lackeys began to enter in pairs, bringing the different dishes: the beet soup called royal, and the old-Polish broth, artistically prepared, into which the Seneschal in marvellous and mysterious wise had thrown several pearls and a piece of money; such broth purifies the blood and fortifies the health; after it came other dishes—but who could describe them all! Who would even comprehend those dishes of kontuz, arkas, and blemas,206 no longer known in our times, with their ingredients of cod, stuffing, civet, musk, caramel, pine nuts, damson plums! And those fish! Dry salmon from the Danube, sturgeon, Venetian and Turkish caviare, pikes and pickerel a cubit long, flounders, and capon carp, and noble carp! Finally a culinary mystery: an uncut fish, fried at the head, baked in the middle, and with its tail in a ragout with sauce.
The guests did not ask the names of the dishes, nor were they halted by that curious mystery; they ate everything rapidly with a soldier's appetite, filling their glasses with the generous Hungarian wine.
But meanwhile the great centrepiece had changed its colour,207 and, stripped of its snow, had already turned green; for the light froth of sugared ice, slowly warmed by the summer heat, had melted and disclosed a foundation hitherto hidden from the eye: so the landscape now represented a new time of year, shining with a green, many-coloured spring. Various grains came forth, as if yeast were making them grow; gilded ears of saffron wheat were seen in rich profusion, also rye, clad in leaves of picturesque silver, and buckwheat, made artistically of chocolate, and orchards blooming with pears and apples.
The guests had scant time to enjoy the gifts of summer; in vain they begged the Seneschal to prolong them. Already the centrepiece, like a planet in its appointed revolution, was changing the season of the year; already the grain, painted with gold, had gathered warmth from the room, and was slowly melting; already the grasses were growing yellow and the leaves were turning crimson and were falling; you might have said that an autumn wind was blowing; finally those trees, gorgeous an instant before, now stood naked, as if they had been stripped by the winds and the frost; they were sticks of cinnamon, or twigs of laurel that counterfeited pines, being clad in caraway seeds instead of needles.
The guests, as they drank their wine, began to tear off the branches, stumps, and roots, and to chew them as a relish. The Seneschal walked about the centrepiece, and, full of joy, turned triumphant eyes upon the guests.
Henryk Dombrowski feigned great amazement, and said:—
"My friend the Seneschal, are these Chinese shadows? Or has Pinety208 given you his demons as servants? Do such centrepieces still exist among you, here in Lithuania, and do all men feast in this ancient fashion? Tell me, for I have passed my life abroad."
"No, Your Excellency the General," said the Seneschal with a bow, "these are no godless arts! This is only a reminder of those famous banquets that used to be given in the mansions of our ancient magnates, when Poland enjoyed happiness and power! All that I have done I learned by reading in this book. You ask me whether this custom has been preserved everywhere in Lithuania. Alas, new fashions are already creeping in even among us! Many a young gentleman exclaims that he cannot stand the expense; he eats like a Jew, grudging his guests food and drink; he is stingy with the Hungarian wine, and drinks that devilish, adulterated, fashionable Muscovite champagne; then in the evening he loses as much money at cards as would suffice for a banquet for a hundred gentlemen and brothers. Even—for what I have in my heart I will to-day speak out frankly; let not the Chamberlain take it ill of me—when I was getting that wonderful centre-*piece from the treasure room, then even the Chamberlain, even he made fun of me, saying that this was a tiresome, antiquated contrivance—that it looked like a child's plaything and was unfit for such famous men as we have with us to-day! Judge!—even you, Judge, said that it would bore the guests! And yet, so far as I may infer from the amazement of the company, I see that this is fine art, that it was worthy of being seen! I doubt whether a like occasion will ever again return for entertaining at Soplicowo such dignitaries. I see, General, that you are an expert at banquets; pray accept this book: it will be of use to you some day when you are giving a feast for a company of foreign monarchs, or perhaps one even for Napoleon himself. But permit me, before I tender the book to you, to relate by what chance it fell into my hands."
Suddenly a murmur arose outside the door, and many voices shouted in unison, "Long live Cock-on-the-Steeple!" A throng pushed into the hall, with Maciej at their head. The Judge led the guest by the hand to the table and gave him a high seat among the leaders, saying:—
"Pan Maciej, unkind neighbour, you come very late, when dinner is almost over."
"I eat early," replied Dobrzynski; "I did not come here for food, but only because I was overpowered by curiosity to see close at hand our national army. Of this much might be said; it is neither fish, flesh, nor fowl. These gentlemen caught sight of me and brought me here by force; and you, sir, are compelling me to seat myself at your table—I thank you, neighbour."
With these words he turned his plate bottom upwards, as a sign that he would not eat, and relapsed into glum silence.
"Pan Dobrzynski," said General Dombrowski to him, "are you that famous swordsman of the Kosciuszko times, that Maciej, called Switch! Your fame has reached me. And pray tell me, is it possible that you are still so hale, so vigorous! How many years have gone by! See, I have grown old; see, Kniaziewicz too has grizzled hair; but you might still enter the lists against young men. And your switch doubtless blooms as it did long ago; I have heard that recently you birched the Muscovites. But where are your brethren? I should beyond measure like to see those penknives and razors of yours, the last relics of ancient Lithuania."
"After that victory, General," said the Judge, "almost all the Dobrzynskis took refuge in the Grand Duchy, and must have entered one or other of the legions."
"Why certainly," answered a young squadron commander, "I have in the second company a mustachioed scarecrow, Sergeant-Major Dobrzynski, who calls himself Sprinkler, but whom the Masovians call the Lithuanian bear. If you bid me, General, we will have him brought in."
"There are several other natives of Lithuania here," said a lieutenant. "One such soldier is known under the name of Razor; another carries a blunderbuss and rides with the sharp-shooters; there are likewise two grenadiers named Dobrzynski in the chasseur regiment."
"Well, but I want to know about their chief," said the General, "about that Penknife of whom the Seneschal has told me so many marvels, worthy of one of the giants of old times."
"Penknife," said the Seneschal, "though he did not go into exile, nevertheless feared the result of an investigation, and hid himself from the Muscovites; all winter the poor fellow roamed about the forests, and he has only recently come forth from them. In these times of war he might have been good for something, for he is a valorous man, only he is unfortunately a trifle bowed by age. But here he is."
Here the Seneschal pointed towards the vestibule, where servants and peasants were standing crowded together. Above the heads of all a shining bald pate showed itself suddenly like the full moon; thrice it emerged and thrice it vanished in the cloud of heads; the Warden was bowing as he strode forward, until finally he made his way out of the press, and said:—
"Your Excellency the Hetman of the Crown—or General—never mind which is the correct title—I am Rembajlo, and I present myself at your summons with this my penknife, which, not by its setting nor by its inscriptions but by its temper, has won such fame that even Your Excellency knows of it. If it knew how to speak, perchance it would say somewhat in praise even of this old arm, which, thank God, has served long and faithfully the Fatherland and likewise the family of the Horeszkos: of which fact the memory is still famous among men. My boy, rarely does a bookkeeper on an estate mend pens so deftly as this penknife cleaves heads: it were long to count them! And noses and ears without number! But there is not a single nick upon it, and no murderous deed has ever stained it, but only open war, or a duel. Only once!—may the Lord give him eternal rest!—an unarmed man, alas, fell beneath its edge! But even that, God is my witness, was pro publico bono."
"Show it to me," said General Dombrowski with a laugh. "That is a lovely penknife, a real headsman's sword!"
He gazed with amazement on the huge blade, and passed it on to the other officers; all of them tried it, but hardly one of the officers could lift that blade on high. They said that Dembinski,209 famous for his strength of arm, could have brandished the broadsword, but he was not there. Of those present only the squadron commander Dwernicki,210 and Lieutenant Rozycki,211 the leader of a platoon, managed to swing the iron pole: thus the blade was passed for trial from hand to hand along the line.
But General Kniaziewicz, the tallest of stature, proved to be also the stoutest of arm. Seizing the huge blade, he swung it as lightly as a common sword and flashed it like lightning over the heads of the guests, recalling to their minds the tricks of the Polish school of fencing, the cross stroke, the mill, the crooked slash, the downright blow, the stolen slash, and the attitudes of counterpoint212 and tierce, which he knew likewise, for he had been trained in the School of Cadets.
While he was still laughing and fencing, Rembajlo had kneeled and embraced him about the knees, and was groaning out between his tears, at every turn of the sword:—
"Beautiful! General, were you ever a confederate? Beautiful, splendid! That is the Pulawskis'213 thrust! Thus Dzierzanowski214 bore himself! That is Sawa's thrust! Who can so have trained your arm except Maciej Dobrzynski! But that? General, that is my invention; in Heaven's name, I do not wish to boast, but that stroke is known only in Rembajlo hamlet, and from my name it is called My-boy's slash. Who can have taught it to you? That is my stroke, mine!"
He rose and clasped the General in his arms.
"Now I can die in peace! There still exists a man who will fondle my darling child; for I have long been grieving, both day and night, at the thought that after my death this my blade might rust away! Now it will not rust! Your Excellency the General, forgive me!—throw away those spits, those German swordlets; it is shameful for a gentleman's son to wear that little cane! Take instead a sabre such as befits a gentleman: now I lay at your feet this my penknife, which is the most precious thing that I possess in all the world. I have never had a wife, I have never had a child: it has been both wife and child to me; from my embrace it has never departed; from dawn till dark have I petted it; it has slept by night at my side! And since I have grown old, it has been hanging on the wall above my couch, like God's commandments over the Jews! I thought to have it buried in my grave along with my arm; but I have found an owner for it. May it be your servant!"
The General, half laughing, and half touched with emotion, replied:—
"Comrade, if you give up to me your wife and child, you will be left for the rest of your life very solitary and old, a widower and without children! Tell me how I may recompense you for this precious gift, and with what I may sweeten your childless widowhood!"
"Am I Cybulski,"215 answered the Warden mournfully, "who gambled away his wife, playing marriage with the Muscovites, as the song relates?—I am quite content that my penknife will still gleam before the world in such a hand. Only remember, General, to give it a long strap, well let out, for the blade is long; and always hew from the left ear with both hands—then you will cut through from head to belly."