A WINTER'S NIGHT: A Polish Tale Edit
by Eliza Orzeszko. Edit
Adapted from a French Version by Katherine Berry di Zerega, published in Short Stories 1903
Although not far advanced, the night was very dark. Heavy clouds obscured the sky, unrelieved by a single star; fiercely howled the wind, groaning and plunging into a deep ravine, whose precipitous heights enclosed a frozen stream. Ravine and river, with outlines shrouded in snow, were lost in the surrounding gloom. A mountain on the right, covered with leafless trees, shut out the horizon; on the left were dark spots, village homes; their lighted windows pierced the darkness with luminous points.
At the foot of the ravine walked a man. His somber silhouette moved rapidly over the vague whiteness of the land. The lofty banks of the ravine diminished his size, reducing him to a being of infinitesimal proportions, borne away on an ocean of clouds and solitude. The unchained winds seemed dragging him along at their will. A wild and terrible nature confronted the wretched man, who appeared but as a grain of sand, a blade of grass, an atom fallen from the precipice. He advanced, however, with a firm step, but his iron staff now striking against a stone, he paused, with eyes fixed on the lighted windows of the cabins, and a smothered exclamation escaped him — he had recognized the place. Then he crossed the frozen river, climbed the opposite bank, and approached the last enclosure of the village.
It was the dwelling of Simon Mikoula, who was seen within, standing against the thick wall of the structure By the light of a poor lantern his figure appeared colossal, his head massive through the clouds of smoke that he exhaled". His large, muscular hands evinced uncommon strength, while his entire frame indicated an energetic and indomitable will. At first glance one could see that if this old man were to arise and give orders, every one would hasten to obey.
A number of people were present. The oldest, a carpenter, was at work upon a wooden rake. One could distinguish naught in his bearded face save two little eyes, as shining as sparks. His wife, the dignified and beautiful Christine.was standing beside the hearth, with the majestic mien of a revered matron, a wife content with her destiny. Near her was a young girl seated at a spinning-wheel, its motion at this moment suspended as she listened to the animated words of a peasant.
Seated upon an over-turned tub, and employed in shelling beans, was a little old woman who, in order to hear better, had thrust forth her wrinkled face into the bright light of the fireplace. No less astonished and eager was the wife of Alexis, pretty and fresh as the dawn, and slender as the stem of a lily. She was rocking an infant in her arms, while watching a wicker cra&le attached to a beam of the ceiling, wherein an older babe lay sleeping. Two little blond girls, on the top of the oven, and a youth of fifteen, occupied in weaving a net, were likewise listening eagerly to the story, of Alexis, the youngest son of old Mikoula. Standing in the middle of the izba, still wrapped in his cloak of black sheepskin, a whip in his hand, the young man was talking excitedly.
"It is true, I tell you. Everyone is talking about it, and they all agree that it is the brigand Bonk, the man who killed three people ten years ago. Sentenced to hard labor for life, he escaped, and, under an assumed name, and with a forged passport, managed to get into a factory, where he worked for two or three years. Discovered, he received one hundred strokes of the knout. "
The young mother, who was rocking her child, uttered a plaintive cry; the old woman shook her head; the blue eyes of the blond boy were clouded with terror.
"And he lived through it? Great heavens!" exclaimed the gentle mistress of the house.
"Yes, indeed ! The devil didn't fly away with him for that !" answered Alexis. "After some time spent in the hospital, he was sent off to Siberia. Well ! now would you believe it! He escaped again!"
"Did he escape from Siberia?" asked Mikoula.
" Yes, indeed, father! After a year or two he left without leave. They have sought for him throughout the empire, and — they have found him — here."
"What! here?" exclaimed Mikoula. "Who do you expect to believe such stuff? "
"I assure you, father, I am not lying. He was discovered two leagues from here, in a factory, with a forged passport. But he escaped again, before they had time to arrest him."
"Did they send around his photograph?" asked the carpenter.
" People like that don't get photographed — but the officer in charge received a lot of papers, and said: 'Good people, search for him, for God's sake, if you would avoid misfortune, and when you have taken him, bring him to prison. This time he will receive not one, but two hundred strokes of the knout ; then chains on his ankles and hard labor for the rest of his life.' That is all."
A profound silence ensued. One would have said that the ghost of the miserable man, with bleeding bad? had just crossed the izba. At length Mikoula arose, and, while knocking the ashes from his pipe against the table, said in a firm tone:
"It is no more than just! All criminals should be treated thus. ' Thou shalt not steal.' A murderer ought not to live ! God himself hath said so. The innocent should be protected. Enough said!"
Here his stern glance fell upon the family group, and his brow, deeply ploughed with wrinkles, his whole being, seemed to proclaim that if one of his flock should ever follow the example of the other one, he would be the first to lay upon him his massive hand of bronze. Everyone was silent whenever he uttered these words: "Enough said!" disputes, disagreements, discussions, at once ceased.
Alexis laid down his whip, went up to his wife, and began to softly caress the cheek of his sleeping son ; the carpenter once more took up his plane, and the monotonous whir of young Annette's wheel again filled the room.
At this moment the door creaked on its hinges, and the sound of a rough, panting voice was heard exclaiming:
"Praise the Lord!"
" Now and forever! " replied those within.
" Sir, madame," continued the harsh voice, " I am a traveler who asks for your hospitality. Permit me to rest here awhile. I will not impose upon you long, but will leave in less than an hour."
" Enter and rest yourself," replied Mikoula.
The flame of the hearth revealed a man of remarkable height, with broad but sunken shoulders, clad in a suit of fine cloth, and wearing heavy boots that covered the knees. His face was of the sickly hue of parchment, and his high brow, red hair, and bright blue eyes challenged instant attention.
" Pray sit down," said Christine,without quitting the hearth. Then, turning to her son, the youth of fifteen, she added:
"John, fetch a stool."
The stranger seated himself, with the iron staff between his knees.
"I am so cold — hungry," said he, rubbing his hands together, and with a smile half jocose, half insinuating.
"The wind is strong enough to knock one down," said Alexis.
" Would you like something to eat? " said the carpenter.
“Yes, indeed; I should have eaten, but neglected to bring any food with me," he replied, smiling; his voice, however, betrayed an inward anguish, and his glance darted eagerly to the oven. " I have been marching for two days. What do I sayl Two days! Two weeks — I have walked and walked and walked; I seek what I have not lost — and know not if I shall ever find it."
He laughed again, a forced laugh. No one spoke, for no one gave orders save Simon Mikoula. The old man regarded the stranger abstractedly, then addressing his eldest daughter-inlaw, said: " Have you anything to eat, Christine? "
"There's some gruel," she replied.
Exhaling a thiqk cloud of smoke, Mikoula then inquired:
“Do you come from a distance? "
" From Prussia," was the reply.
“To work in a factory? Germans seldom come here except for that purpose," observed Mikoula.
"Are you a German?" eagerly questioned the urchin John.
" No, but I come from Germany. I heard that they were building some barracks in this neighborhood, and thought perhaps they might employ me, for I can do good work. I care not what it may be, provided I make a few pence."
Christine now placed a bowl of soup and a huge piece of black bread before the traveler, who seized the bread with his long, bony fingers, reddened with cold, but his eyes sought something else.
"Pardon me, master, but I am chilled through. Might I have a little glass of brandy ? "
"I've no objection," replied Mikoula, absently; "Christine, get the brandy."
The carpenter's eyes fairly glittered. Christine produced a bottle and glass, which Mikoula half filled, lifted to his lips, then, bowing to his visitor, said gravely:
"To your health."
On receiving the glass from the old man, the hand of the stranger trembled ; he replied :
"To your prosperity."
The carpenter regarded his father timidly and stretched out his hand for the bottle, then, as Mikoula was silent, emboldened, he poured himself out a brimming glass, and, after drinking it, turned to his brother Alexis and said :
"Come, take a drink."
"I don't drink," replied the young peasant; "my wife has forbidden me." Then, with a loud laugh, "She made me swear not to, on the crucifix; didn't you, Olenka? It's now more than a year since I've tasted a drop of brandy.
The old woman, who was shelling beans, drew near the bottle.
"Drink," said Mikoula.
She did not wait to be urged, but, bowing to the company, quickly gulped down the contents of the glass. The stranger fastened his gaze upon her, while greedily swallowing, enormous mouthfuls of soup and devouring the bread crumbs in the hollow of his hand. However, as his hunger began to be appeased, he examined those around him more curiously. One would have said he was searching for someone; then he abruptly demanded:
" And your wife, master, is she still living? "
Before Mikoula could speak the old woman replied:
"She's dead, poor woman. She died ten years ago; the same year that I was dismissed from the castle; then Simon, God bless him ! took me in to help Christine. "
" Dead! " repeated the stranger, his gaze riveted on the face of the speaker. "And y*)u, mother," he continued, " isn't your name Nastoula? Were you not once housekeeper at the castle?"
"Why, yes," she replied, in surprise.
“How did you know it ? " questioned Alexis.
The stranger did not appear to hear.
“How long ago did you build this house, good master? "
Simon calmly replied that he had only added a story to the old one.
"I see that the izba is not exactly what it was," observed the stranger.
" Did you ever see it before ? " asked the carpenter.
There was no reply. Suddenly the unknown resumed :
" So then the old mother is no longer here ! Nor John ! ' '
" Who do you mean by 'John'?" asked Simon, taking his pipe out of his mouth.
" Why do you ask? " replied the stranger, with a loud laugh. 4 'Why, your eldest son, of course."
" As you know so much, have you ever been here before?" asked Olenka.
" You must have been," asserted Mikoula.
" You're right; I was here a long time ago. I helped build the castle."
" That has been built for nearly twenty years," said the old woman.
" More than that," corrected the stranger.
" Come now," said Mikoula, after carefully regarding his visitor, " it seems to me that I've seen you somewhere. "
" Please God!" chimed in the old woman, " it seems to me that I, too, have seen you before. Did you ever happen to speak tome?"
The vagabond smiled and, regarding her wrinkled hands, replied:
" Did I ever speak to you? Many a time, to be sure! Why, you used to give me white bread and honey, taken out of the castle storeroom."
Hereupon he burst out laughing, his eyes glittering like jewels.
The vacillating gaze of Nastoula, searching and inquisitive, and that of Mikoula, calm and severe beneath his heavy eyebrows, strove to discern whom this stranger might be.
The unknown rubbed his hand? together to conceal his agitation, then, going up to the young girl at the spinning-wheel, inquired:
"Art thou the master's youngest daughter ?"
“ Yes," she replied, blushing.
“And not. yet twenty ? ' '
During this colloquy the room was filled with the clamor of tongues. John was accusing the little old woman of having taken another glass of brandy, and Olenka was laughing at their quarrel; the carpenter was talking to his wife, who had seated herself at the spinning-wheel. Mikoula alone was silent, continuing to examine the traveler through the puffs of smoke from his pipe, with his elbows on the table, and his head thrown back, when Alexis, in a loud tone, suddenly inquired :
" Have you seen or heard anything of Bonk? "
A solemn silence ensued, then the stranger calmly replied :
"Of course; one hears of no one else nowadays."
"Deliver us from^such talk! Do you think they will catch him?"
"Perhaps yes; perhaps no," replied the vagabond, coldly.
"It is to be hoped that they will; otherwise we shall have any number of robberies, fires, and murders."
"Nonsense! If he has escaped twice, he'll be clever enough not to hang around here," cried the carpenter. "I can't for the life of me understand," he went on, "how he ever got out of that prison, ten years ago — for I've seen it. Tremendously thick walls! Soldiers! Bayonets! You'd think only a bird could escape. Well! he managed to, all the same! He couldn't have bitten through the walls, or jumped out of the window, for it's so high he'd have been smashed to bits on the pavement."
"He didn't jump out; he flew out," replied the vagabond, with a smile of satisfaction.
"With wings manufactured by the devil?" grumbled the carpenter.
"On a witch's broom?" said Alexis, jocularly.
"No, but with the aid of an umbrella, in faith!"
Everyone ceased speaking, overcome by surprise, while the stranger stood swaying complacently in front of the fire.
"Yes, a fool would think it a miracle, but a wise man, and I am one, would know that such an idea was mere childishness. Now this is what Bonk did: He took an umbrella, a very large one, opened it, turned it upside down, and houp! jumped inside of it and flew down out of the window. Otherwise he would have fallen head foremost. The umbrella, sustained by the wind, descended slowly, and Bonk only scraped his nose on the pavement, where he landed full length. They found the umbrella all right, the next day, but it was three years before they found the prisoner. Ha! ha!"
His laughter and his countenance expressed the pleasure of a rogue after successfully performing a mischievous trick.
"How is it that you happen to know all these details?" interrogated Mikoula, in a loud, severe tone. "Yes; how is it?" they all repeated.
The unknown seemed to detect hostility in this question, and, proudly raising his head, replied:
"How do I know? Do people never talk? And haven't I ears to hear? They've talked and I've listened. What the devil do you mean ? "
He stamped his foot to emphasize his displeasure, but seemed alarmed.
Alexis stared hard at him, then observed : "You appear to know a good deal about this Bonk, my dear sir; perhaps you have met him."
"How can that be when I've just come from Prussia, and it's more than twenty years since I've set foot in this country," replied the vagabond, shrugging his shoulders.
"What a pity! Then you might have told us something that would have helped us catch him. Ah! if I could only once get' hold of him, before the police, wouldn't I flay him alive, though!"
" For shame ! So young and yet so cruel ! " "But he's a brigand!" replied the infuriated Alexis. "May the rogue perish!" cried the carpenter. " He must be secured at all risks, or he'll find accomplices and begin again.
"He won't have time to," replied Alexis. "When once he's been taken, when they've given him two hundred lashes of the knout, they'll send him off there to the other end of the world to work in the mine6, underground, from dawn till night."
"Poor soul!" murmured Olenka, hugging her son to «h$r breast.
" Why was he ever born ? " muttered Nastoula.
Christine drew up her tall figure, gazed thoughtfully into the fire, and in a low tone let fall these words :
"And yet, he, too, has been borne in a mother's arms."
The unknown suddenly leaned over to her, and hurriedly murmured in her ear:
11 Watch over your son! Guard well your John, so that he may never be like that miserable man."
Startled, she turned her head, but he was gazing in another direction at Mikoula, who, still relentless, was proclaiming in stern tones:
"It is but just."
"Still," resumed the stranger, "it would be interesting to hear his side of the story; for it is not likely that this Bonk became a brigand without some reason. Whence did he come ? Where is the mother who bore him in her arms? He was not an assassin! So he must have taken the downward path step by step, before reaching a point from which no power can pluck him back. I know not what he may have done before committing murder, but I do know that he abhorred his crime afterward and that he tried to work honestly in a factory. Do you fancy that they left him in peace ': No, indeed ! They arrested him and pushed him down into the mud again. Who cared to know that he repented? The devil, perhaps! but — "
Here Alexis interrupted him excitedly :
" Ah ! how well you take the part of brigands ! "
"Oh, yes! you who are so comfortable in your fine sheepskin coat, do you think that a poor devil with a scarred back has no claim to pity ? "
"None!" cried Mikoula, roughly, with a frown. The word shot forth like a blow in the face of the unknown, who, recognizing the affront, strode across the room and sat down beside the old man.
The attention of the company was now diverted by the arrival of two newcomers; confidents conversation ensued, and Mikoula and the vagabond were left to themselves.
"Master, what has become of your son John?" questioned the stranger, in a low tone. "Have you, then, forgotten him?"
"Heaven forbid!" yelped the old Nastoula, who had just drunk half a glass of brandy, and had crept up to the two men. "May I be palsied, may I die, if I ever forget my own little darling, my Jacky. Many and many a time have I carried him in my arms."
But the unknown, heeding not her words, went on: "So then, my master, it seems that you have forgotten John! Nevertheless he was your first-born, a fine lad, fearless and intelligent — "
" Too fearless," muttered the old man, shaking the ashes from his pipe.
“ But what happened to him? "
Mikoula was silent for a moment.
" It was all the result of a childish action. I was commissioned to go to the city to consult a lawyer regarding a suit some neighbors had instituted against us. I took John with me, as I was fond of him. God forgive me! ' He was a very bright boy, but too fond of having his own way. At work he was like a spirited horse; at play, ungovernable. Sometimes he would throw his arms around your neck, and nearly Strang e you ; at other times he would resist, no matter whom. I used to scold him well, but more often was indulgent; up to that time he had done no harm."
His face clouded and, shaking his head, he continued: " 1 was wrong in taking him to the lawyer's house. He listened to every word and on our return home, said: *I will kill any one who tries to take away our property ;' but I only laughed at him. The land in question really belonged to us; still, we lost the suit. When the Doubrowas wished to take possession of it, all the village opposed them. But the civil authorities took the matter up, and two employees were sent to measure the field and give to each one his portion. All at once twenty youths fell upon them, armed, some with scythes, some with pitchforks, my Jack at the head of them, like a commander. They were all arrested and tried, but he alone was condemned, and to three years in prison. 'He is the chief/ said they, 'the instigator.' I did not very much mind his being imprisoned for a while, as I thought it might teach him to be reasonable."
The unknown burst out laughing, and exclaimed: "Well! and did he learn anything there? "
" Alas, yes! On his return he gave us no peace. 4 What pleasure,' he used to say, 'can you take in staying in these hovels, and in working so hard, while the world revels in riches, and one £an get them with so little trouble.' Then I used to beat him; but he would cry out, 'You'd better stop it father, or I'll run away, and you'll never see me again.' After that he would rush off to the tavern. Then he took to drink; he who had never before even tasted brandy. He was but a boy, hardly seventeen years old, when he was sent to prison, and it was there that he formed the habit. I used to lecture him, and say: 'Art thou not ashamed, John? Dost thou not fear the good God ? ' And then he would laugh and reply, ' I've seen and heard many strange things in prison. Those who remain in their villages are fools. As to me, I know more about it than you ! ' Ah ! yes, he did indeed know more than I after three years in prison."
Here the vagabond gave a smothered, significant laugh, exclaiming: "Ah! my good master, if you had known what kind of teachers your son had there, the shock might have killed you."
The peculiar intonation of his voice seemed to remind Simon of the past. He examined the traveler curiously.
"What do you mean by that?" said he, slowly. " Have I ever known you before ? Who are you? "
The traveler turned anxiously in the direction of the fireplace. Three young girls, neighbors, had just entered, and Christine and Alexis bade them welcome. A party at Mikoula's had begun. But the host sat gazing steadfastly at his guest and appeared sunk in profound meditation. With eyes fixed on the ground, he could be seen, through the smoke of his pipe, shaking his head like one surprised and in doubt.
The old Nastoula, now half-drunk, seizing the traveler by the sleeve, here resumed the conversation :
"So you used to know our John?" cried she. "Did you really know him? Ah! the poor boy, how he suffered! — and through his own father! How he used to beat him! He was as stern with him as he had once been indulgent. Often did his wife and I hold back his arms, crying: 'Simon, don't torment thy child! Don't destroy his soul. If thou goest too far, he'll run away and be lost forever. ' Then he would throw us off and bellow like an ox. ' He'll have to suffer, if he won't mend his ways! I'd rather kill him than have him do evil!' As to John, he grew thin and melancholy. One day he seemed submissive, begged his father's pardon, then disappeared. He has never been seen or heard of since; the poor dear! His mother wept, Sister Marie wept , but his father never shed a tear.”
With his elbows on his knees, his head in his bony hand, the traveler, with half -closed eyes, was listening to this recital as if in a reverie haunted by evil dreams. Suddenly seizing the brandy bottle by the neck, he swallowed all that was left in a single gulp, then exclaimed:
"Oh! foolish old woman! If he never regretted his first born, why then did he call his grandson John? "
Simon, aroused from his meditation, leaned over to the unknown and, raising his right hand, murmured :
" In the name of the Father and of the Son — "
But the traveler arose and, noisily pushing back his stool, went and seated himself in the shadow.
At this moment the door was rudely burst open and a tall, stout girl, quite out of breath, rushed in, crying:
“For pity's sake ! shut the door ! Here come the boys to the party. They're going to do all they can to tease us, burn the flax on our distaffs, and a hundred other silly things! "
The girls rushed at once to defend the door. One of them pushed a bench up against it; another armed herself with a firebrand, and a third seized a pail of water. The two little blond girls likewise took part in the mfitee, screaming with all their might, and starting a deafening din. Four stalwart peasants now arrived upon the scene of action, and, notwithstanding a vigorous defense, broke down the ramparts and entered the fortress in triumph.
The newcomers went up and saluted Simon Mikoula, but he made no response, although always pleased to see people in his house; on this evening, however, his gloomy silence and deeply-furrowed brow betokened clouds heavy with tempests. Opposite the old man, between the wall and a hogshead, the traveler was seated in the shadow. He was listening to the charades and songs whereby the guests entertained themselves, and the remembrances they evoked in his soul caused him to heave a mournful sigh, resembling a groan.
The gentle Olenka, who was seated near by, then turned quickly to him, and, with beaming face, exclaimed:
"Nastoula is going to tell us some stories; she knows such splendid ones ! Listen ! ' '
The old woman, in her cap of red cotton, in trembling tones, now began her tale:
' ' Once upon a time there were three brothers. Two of them were clever, but the third was simple-minded. When they were grown up, and of an age to marry, the father said to them: 'Which one of you shall I arrange to be married the first?' The oldest replied, 'On account of my age, I think you should choose me.' Then the second one said, 'Nor should I object.' Then said the simple-minded one, in his turn, ' I, too, would like to be married. ' Then said the father: 'Go to the forest, and he who brings back the most berries, shall be married the first. ' They obeyed. The two older ones picked away for some time, but their baskets would not fill quickly. Then they turned to the simple-minded one, who was working hard, without saying a word, and asked: ' How many have you?' 'See,' he replied, 'my basket is full, and I am ready to go home.' Overcome by jealousy the brothers seized a knife and plunged it into his heart; then they dug a hole and threw his body therein, covering it with earth. Instead of a cross, they planted a little cherry tree on the grave, then returned to their home.
"Some time after, a horseman passing by, saw the cherry tree and cut it down to make a flute of it. As he was placing it to his lips, the flute began to sing: 'Play not, play not on me. Torment not thou my heart, my brothers murdered me.”
"The horseman, greatly astonished, goes on his way and arrives at the village where the fratricides lived with their father. Surprised by nightfall, he asks their hospitality. ' If you did but know- what strange thing has happened to me,' said he to his host. ' While going through the forest, I espied a pretty little cherry tree, slim and straight, and cut it down to make a flute of it. In all my life 1 have never heard aught like it. Would you like to try it?' The host takes up the flute, which at once begins its plaint: 'Play not on me, my father!' Deeply concerned, the old man passes the instrument to his sons, when again is heard the mournful refrain, 'Play not on me, my brothers. Torment not my poor heart, for you have murdered me.' Then the truth was discovered, and they fell upon the guilty ones and put them in prison."
When the old woman ceased speaking, for several moments silence reigned in the izba.
"How frightened these women all are!" murmured the gay Alexis in the ear of one of his companions. "Just wait a minute, and you'll see how I'll scare them, too!"
He went out, and in two minutes came running back, crying: " Help ! help ! Bonk is coming! The brigand Bonk is after me."
The spinners screamed. The grave Christine herself trembled and glanced anxiously at her two little girls. But the young people, divining the trick, burst out laughing. Then each one had something to say. None had observed that at the time of the joke the unknown had suddenly arisen. Then the laughter of the peasants had appeared to reassure him. His restless glance wandered over the walls and the assemblage, then slowly he sank to the ground, clutching his iron staff, till his form disappeared behind the hogshead. The head alone, emerging from the shadows, and illumined by the flame of the hearth, had a ghostly effect, suspended thus in mid-air. Mikoula encountered its gaze and trembled.
" In the name of the Father and of the Son," murmured he, in affright. His pipe fell from his nerveless hand, but he perceived it not.
“Good God! " faltered he, bowing before this head, so tragic of aspect, so forlorn, emaciated, with withered skin, prominent cheek-bones and shaken by convulsive, silent sobs. The moving lips, though mute, appeared to say: " Father, do you not know your child? Do you not remember what once I was? See what I am to-day!"
"Merciful Jesus! Have pity upon us!" murmured the terrified old man.
At the other end of the room the women were singing in chorus a popular melody, "Arise, oh, moon! Arise! Ah! fair one, it is time. Approach, my sole delight. "
And the lips went on. "Dost thou remember our sunny days together? Those days when thou wert wont to turn homeward with nets all full of fish with rosy fins and silver scales; when, barefoot, I did blithely follow thee, while joyously my shouts resounded to the graveyard green, borne by the echoing pines; Father, dost thou remember?"
The swift whir of the spinning-wheels fell upon the ear, accompanying the gay refrain that now arose in swelling tones. "How can I ask thee, love? They laugh at me and say that I ought not to wed."
And still the mournful, quivering lips went on: "Father, no longer may I live with thee, in this, thy kind and hospitable home, where friends and merry games beguile the winter nights. Though chance hath led me here, now must I flee away ;flee from the terror that pursues, chilling the blood within my veins. But I have deeply sinned, and as thou saidst but now, 'Justice must be observed!' then here I cannot stay."
Spellbound, Mikoula repeated, tremblingly, " No, here thou canst not stay;' 1 then, suddenly passing his hand over his eyes, he exclaimed: " Specter, get thee hence! What devil hath summoned thee?" He then turned to the wall, leaning thereon his threatening brow, refusing to look or listen more.
And still the women sang a joyful, glad refrain.
Suddenly, as a ribbon severed in twain, the chorus ceased, and from the midst of the group of peasants the insolent voice of Alexis demanded :
"Where is your passport, Mr. Traveler? Show it, so that we may know who you are."
At these words Mikoula turned quickly around. Wrinkled and stern, with hands upon his knees, he remained mute, while regarding the six peasants grouped around the hogshead.
"Does anyone know who you are? We may be guilty in not having taken thee to the guard -house before."
"Perhaps thou art the brigand, Bonk, the man who has shed innocent blood," cried the clever Damien, who had been the first to suspect the identity of the unknown.
As a wild beast pursued by hunters, the stranger threateningly arose. Lifting his iron staff, with a terrible oath, he rushed to the door; but they seized him by the shoulders, while everyone shrieked in chorus:
"Ha! ha! So then your heels are your passport?"
"It is Bonk! It must be!"
The women, in affright, crowded together, and the little girls hid their heads in the skirts of their mother, who alone retained a calm and grave demeanor. The old Nastoula had fallen asleep, from time to time her lips murmuring vaguely the dreamy words of some familiar refrain.
Having reached the door, the unknown fought furiously. Muscu'ar, strong, and doubtless used to this kind of attack, he repulsed his opponents, whose number, however, augmented by Alexis and the carpenter, in the end was bound to prevail.
" Some rope ! I say, girls, give us some rope ! "
But not a soul stirred, and only the voice of the old woman was heard, humming: " ' Play not on me, my brothers! Torment not my poor heart.' "
Then a pleading voice, in humble, trembling tones, arose in the midst of the struggling group.
" Let me go, good people. For the love of heaven! As you yourselves would be saved! I shall do you no harm; I am leaving here at once and forever. Ah ! let me go ! "
This appeal was met by sneers and laughter.
Suddenly old Mikoula arose in all the majesty of his towering height; then, striving to speak, but failing to utter a syllable, he fell back into his seat. Leaning against the chimneypiece, Nastoula kept on repeating in her dreams, '"Torment not my poor heart, my brothers murdered me.' " As the women did not obey his order, Alexis went out in search of rope, and the vagabond again essayed to escape. With head thrown forward, he exhausted himself in. vain efforts. Ah! how shrunken his tall figure now appeared. In this crouching attitude he seemed to already see the knout descending on his defenseless form. His contracted features expressed a whole world of suffering, while his haggard eyes roved o'er the assembled group, wildly imploring pity. At this moment he in truth personified the sum of human misery.
"Chance alone led me here,"" he continued; "I meant no harm. I only wished to rest awhile. I'm going far away; release me, I entreat you, for the love of Christ. Ah! good people, have mercy on me!"
Christine, as in a dream, was softly murmuring: " And this man, too, was once caressed and carried in a mother's arms."
Alexis now reappeared with the rope.
"Enough of this!" exclaimed a voice accustomed to command, and Mikoula, who had arisen for the second time, now advanced, majestic in his blouse of snowy linen, girt with a scarf of wool. " Release him! Let him go, I say!"
" But, father, it is Bonk," protested the irrepressible Alexis.
"Hold thy peace!" replied his father, sternly; then, with a lightning glance at the unknown, he cried:
"Go, and sin no more."
The culprit crept forward, fell upon his knees, and pressed his lips to the old man's feet. Great tears rolled down Mikoula's wrinkled cheeks; with a sudden gesture he leaned over the unhappy man, prostrated in the dust, then, drawing himself up, repeated :
"Sin no more."
And then, with all his strength, in terror even, he exclaimed:
And, folding his arms, added in softertones : " Go in peace "