February 08 , 2008



"The rats! Ugh, the rats!" cried beautiful Mrs. Tiralla, as she stood in the cellar with her maid. They had gone down to fetch some of the pickled cabbage from the tub in the corner in order to cook it, and the maid was carrying the lamp whilst Mrs. Tiralla held the earthenware dish. But now she let it fall with a piercing shriek, and lifted her skirts so high that you could see her gay-coloured, striped stockings, and her neat feet encased in shiny leather slippers.

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"Where are the rats?" The maid laughed and showed all her big white teeth. "I can't see any rats. There are none here, Pani," and she looked at her mistress with a half stupid, half cunning leer on her face. "Pani must have been dreaming, there's not a living thing in the cellar except Pani and Marianna. Sh! sh! hark!" She bent her head and listened for a moment; then she shook it and laughed again. "Rats would patter, but there's no sound of anything."

She raised the lamp, so that the light shone all around. Gliding shadows fell on the black walls gleaming with moisture, and showed up the cracks in [Pg 2]the rough masonry, the places where the bricks were crumbling away, and the dark corners in which hung big spider-webs. It was the old cellar of an old house in which the two women were standing, and a very neglected one to boot. It had never been cleared. Turf and coals, all higgledy-piggledy, were stored away near the tub containing the Sauerkraut; and amongst the many wine bottles that lay scattered about on the floor there were just as many empty ones as full ones. The shelves, which once upon a time had reached half-way up the cellar walls, had fallen to pieces, and were now nothing but a heap of rotting wood. All kinds of rubbish lay amongst the potatoes, and broken hooks, broomsticks, and old pieces of pot stuck out of the sand, into which, here and there, a bundle of herbs had been carelessly thrust, in order to keep it through the winter. The place had never been aired, as there was nothing but a very small grating right at the top, which was never opened; and it smelt foul. The lamp gave a dim light, as though stifled by the mustiness, and the two figures – the clumsy figure of the maid and the more dainty one of the mistress – were encircled by a vaporous, glimmering mist.

"But there are rats here, do you see, do you hear? Ugh!" Mrs. Tiralla again gave a loud shriek, her face was pale, and, opening her sparkling eyes wide as if with terror, she seized hold of the girl's arm. "There was one! Ugh! Horrid animal!" She shook herself and gave a jump, as if one of the long-tailed monsters were already creeping up her warm body.

"Holy Mother!" As though infected with the exaggerated fear of her mistress, the maid now also gave a shrill scream and let the lamp fall, as her mistress [Pg 3]before the dish. It broke into many pieces and went out. They stood in pitch darkness.

"You stupid girl!" screamed her mistress nervously, and raised her hand as if to strike her.

The maid ducked down and jumped aside, as though she could see the lifted hand in spite of the darkness; her suppressed chuckling was heard in a distant corner of the cellar.

"If Pani is going to hit me, ha-ha! I shall stop here, ha-ha!"

"Nonsense. Hit you? I shouldn't think of such a thing," protested Mrs. Tiralla, trying to conciliate her. "Just come here. Give me your hand."

"Oh, no, no! I am sure Pani will hit me."

"Give me your hand, I say – at once. I'm not going to do anything to you, stupid. Marianna, where are you?"

Beautiful Mrs. Tiralla now seemed to be seized with real terror – a terror that was much more genuine than before. Her voice trembled with anxiety, her bosom heaved and sank rapidly; one moment she felt quite cold and the next her head burnt. Ugh! how dark it was. Just like a grave! She felt icy cold right down her back. Ah, how dreadful to be here in the dark, quite alone with those thoughts.

"Marianna!" She cried so loudly that it echoed from the vaulted roof. "Marianna, where are you?"

No answer.

"Marianna, I'll give you my silk apron which you like so much. Marianna, but where are you?"

"Why, I'm here. I only went a couple of steps away from you. Here, Pani, here." The girl's warm hand seized hold of her mistress's cold, moist fingers, "So that Pani doesn't knock against anything," she whispered in an ingratiating voice.

[Pg 4]

Thus hand-in-hand the two women groped their way in the dark, until they came to the cellar steps.

"Praise be to the Holy Mother and all the saints!" lisped Mrs. Tiralla as she felt the first step of the slippery stone stairs under her feet. Fifteen steep steps more, and then, thank God, they would be at the top. Then it would be light again. And the dark thoughts would remain below in the darkness. She did not shudder now, when she was almost at the top; on the contrary, she could hardly help laughing, for she had at last succeeded in thoroughly frightening Marianna, who now firmly believed in rats. So she made up her mind that she would not scold the girl on account of the lamp. The thing was now to go on talking and complaining a great, great deal about the rats, so that everybody would soon say: "There are so many rats at Starydwór, in Anton Tiralla's house, that they dance on his benches and tables, that they devour his wheat on the barn floor whilst it's being thrashed, that they've nibbled at the mistress's beautiful dress in her wardrobe – her blue silk one, trimmed with lace." That would be splendid, splendid!

Mrs. Tiralla squeezed the girl's hand with a deep sigh of relief. "You see now that there are rats, although you would never believe it before; oh, ever so many."

"When Pani says there are rats, then there are rats," said the girl in a submissive tone of voice.

Mrs. Tiralla did not notice the smile that made the big mouth under the snub nose still bigger, nor the cunning, lurking gleam that flashed in the small, deep-set eyes.

"Ha-ha!" laughed the maid to herself, "did the Pani really think she was so stupid? Rats had to be [Pg 5]here. The Pani wished rats to be here; the Pani tried to make-believe that rats were here. Well, let people who were more stupid than she was believe it, for she, Marianna Śroka, was much too clever, nobody could humbug her. The mistress must have some reason for saying it, for there were no rats."

She pretended, however, to agree with her mistress, and when they saw daylight again she shuddered and said: "Pani is quite pale with fright. Psia krew, those horrible animals! They'll soon be eating the hair off our heads."

Mrs. Tiralla nodded. Then she said, "You can come to my room afterwards, and I'll give you the apron I've promised you."

"And the lace," said the maid, "the lace which the Pani showed me the other day, I'll put it on my apron."

"My lace on your apron!" Mrs. Tiralla's pale face grew red with anger. "Are you mad?" "Oh, only a little bit of it – there's only a little bit left. What can Pani do with such a little bit? It's not worth keeping." And then the girl gave a loud, bold laugh, and added, "Then I'll say that Pani has given me it, as the rats would otherwise have devoured it. There are so many rats, the rats devour everything here."

A thought flashed through Mrs. Tiralla's mind, "How impertinent she was! What did she suspect? What did she know?"

The two women stared at each other for a few seconds as though they wished to read each other's thoughts. But then they both smiled.

"The Pani can rely upon me," the servant's smile seemed to say. "I'll pretend to be stupid: I'll hear nothing, see nothing, know nothing, just as it suits the Pani."

[Pg 6]

And the mistress's smile said: "That girl is so stupid, there's no need to fear her. She doesn't notice anything, she believes what is said to her. And even if she should notice something, she can be bought at a pinch with an apron, a bit of ribbon, a morsel of lace, or half a gulden."

"Now we've broken the dish, and there's no Sauerkraut for dinner, Marianna," said Mrs. Tiralla.

"Never mind, Pani," and the black-haired girl laughed until her narrow, sparkling eyes quite disappeared behind her prominent cheek-bones. "I'll go down in the cellar by myself with another dish and fetch up some 'kapusta'; Pani needn't fear the rats. And if he," with a short nod in the direction of the nearest door, "should say, 'Why are the dish and the lamp broken?' I'll answer, 'Oh, an accursed rat jumped over our hands and bit the Pani's hand and my nose. There are so many rats in the cellar that you can't go down any more with safety." "That's right," said Mrs. Tiralla, and smiled contentedly. "There's so much vermin in this old house that it's quite dreadful. And we've cockroaches as well in the kitchen – – "

"The walls are covered with them every evening," the girl chimed in eagerly. "The gospodarz had better come to my kitchen some evening, when the light's out, and see it for himself, and then he'll say, 'Ugh!' They fly at your head, and into your face, and against your nose, eyes, and ears. They crawl about everywhere – ugh!" She threw her apron over her head and gave a loud shriek.

"Psia krew, what a noise! Confound you, woman, can't you hold your tongue for five seconds, not for those few moments when I want to sleep?"

The door of the room was flung open and the master [Pg 7]began scolding the maid in an angry voice. But when he caught sight of his wife behind the girl his tone became gentler, even anxious. "What is it, what is it?" For Mrs. Tiralla had also screamed, as if in sudden terror. "Why do you both scream so? My heart! why do you both scream so? What has happened? Why, you're quite pale. Tell me, my Sophia, what's happened to you?"

You could see that this big man, with his strong limbs and ruddy-brown face, was very anxious about his wife, and, after hitching up his trousers (for he knew that she disliked him to take off his braces and make himself comfortable. "Fie, what a boor you are!" she would then say to him), he quickly approached her. "What on earth has happened to you? Tell me."

The woman's black eyes stared at him out of her pale face. "Holy Mother, the rats again!" she stammered, and stretched out her hands as though she wanted to seize hold of something.

Then Mr. Tiralla burst out laughing. "Rats? But, my dear little woman, there are always rats where there are pigs; and why shouldn't there be some here on the farm? If it's nothing but that." He laughed good-naturedly. "I thought you must have seen the little Plucka,[A] or the 'Babok,' the black man, in the cellar. Why didn't you say, 'All good spirits praise God!' and then the rats would also have ran away?"

A Plucka: a ghost with feet like a hen.


"Don't blaspheme," she said in an icy tone. "God punish you for so doing." And when he playfully tried to embrace her, and pushed his enormous, hairy hand under her chin, she shrank back, and, holding her apron up to her eyes, she burst into tears. She sobbed bitterly.

[Pg 8]

It was in vain that the man tried to pull the apron away; she held it firmly pressed against her face. Her slender fingers, which for a farmer's wife were singularly soft, had an enormous power of resistance.

He felt quite dismayed. "My heart, my dove, Sophia, what is the matter with you?" He tried in vain to catch a glimpse of her face. "Confound you, woman, why are you grinning?" he suddenly roared, turning to the maid who was still standing in the same place with a broad smile on her face. "Drat you! it's you who have vexed the mistress."

"No, no, Panje, not I. It was the rats, I swear it. If only the gospodarz would go down into the cellar he would see for himself how they run on the floor and jump up the walls. And in my kitchen he can see the cockroaches – hundreds of thousands, hundred thousand millions of them! Some day they'll fall into Pan Tiralla's food, and then the master will see them for himself."

"Just you try to do it!" Tiralla raised his heavy hand as if to strike the maid, but she evaded him as adroitly as she before had evaded her mistress. It was so ludicrous to see her duck down behind her mistress and make use of her as a bulwark, that the uncouth man roared with laughter. "You needn't fear, you idiot," he said good-naturedly. "I'm not going to hit you. I know very well that you're a little devil, but I don't for a moment think you'll put any dirt into my plate."

"Oh, no," she assured him ingenuously, "I won't do that," and she came out from behind her mistress.

He pinched her firm cheek with his hairy hand. It hurt, and his rough fingers first left a white, then a burning red mark; but she put up with it in silence. No, the gospodarz wasn't angry. He was really much [Pg 9]better than his wife. All at once Marianna thought that her master was to be pitied. She drew a little nearer to him and threw him a glance full of promise from under her half-closed lids. If the old man wanted she was quite willing.

But Tiralla had only eyes for his wife. He continued to beg for a look from her. There was something ridiculous in the way this strong, already grey-haired man worried about this delicate, dainty little woman. "Sophia, my darling, what is the matter? Look at me, my dove, pray don't cry."

He succeeded at length in taking the apron away from her face. But when he tried to kiss her cheek her eyes sparkled, and she spat at him like an angry cat. "Oh, you've hurt me! Pooh, how you smell of manure and tobacco, and of gin, too. You stink, you boor!" And she spat on the ground.

"My darling," he said quite sadly, "what things you do say. I have only drunk one small – really, only one quite small glass – of gin to-day. I swear it by the Holy Mother."

"Don't pollute the Holy Mother by calling on her," she cried in a cutting voice. "Rather blaspheme her, that she sends you the sooner to hell, where you belong. I shall not shed a single tear for you, I swear that."

"What – what have I done to you?" the man stammered, quite terrified. "I've never done anything to you. I've bought you dresses, as many as you liked; I've taken you to balls as often as you liked; I've let you dance with whom you liked; I've never said 'no' when you've said 'yes'; and now you speak so horridly to me. You're ill, my dear; I'll send for the doctor."

"Yes, ill!" she cried, sobbing bitterly. "You've made me ill – you, you, you!" She rushed at him [Pg 10]as though she wanted to scratch his face with her nails. "I don't like you! I detest you! I – I hate you!" she shrieked in a piercing voice. Her eyes sparkled; she clenched her hands and struck her breast, and then she thrust all her fingers into her beautifully smooth hair and tore it out. Her dainty figure trembled and swayed, and she turned so pale that he thought she was going to faint.

The servant opened her eyes in amazement. What was the matter with her? Oh, how stupid she was, how stupid! Why shout it at the master if he hadn't noticed anything? Ay, now she had told him plainly enough – "I hate you!" And he, poor man (may God console him!), what did he do? Was it a laughing or a crying matter? Marianna Śroka did not know if she should think "Oh, you arrant fool!" or if she should wish, "If only he were myhusband, or, at least, my lover." For the gospodarz was good, thoroughly good; he wouldn't stint, her – her and her two little ones. That woman was really too nasty. She didn't deserve such a good husband.

Hitherto her mistress had always had her sympathy, but in a sudden revulsion of feeling she now felt much more drawn towards her master. It was a shame how that woman treated him. She must really have bewitched him, that he put up with such things. It would be better if he took off his big, leather slipper, with the wooden heel, and hit her over the head with it and stunned her, rather than that he should beg and implore in that way. Oh, yes, of course there was no doubt about it, the master was enchanted; the big, stout man had been bewitched by that little woman, that lean goat. She was a "mora," who could change herself into a cat, or into one of those creatures that fly down the chimney on a broomstick. [Pg 11]The priest ought to know it; he would soon put a spoke into her wheel. But there was a better plan than that. She, Marianna, would take the matter into her own hands, then she alone would earn the gratitude of Pan Tiralla. She would take the tip of her shift and rub the bewitched man's forehead with it three times, and then the spell would leave him. And who knows what then might happen? Perhaps he might turn the woman out of the house then, as she was so horrid to him, and always slept in another room, and banged the door in his face. Wasn't he as strong as an ox? Wasn't he rather a fine-looking man? Even if his hair were bristly and already grey, and his eyes rather watery, he was still a man for all that. And he had money – oh, such a lot. The servant's heart beat more rapidly when she thought of it. All the shops in Gradewitz could be bought up with it, and those in Gnesen as well, and – who knows? – perhaps even those in Posen. What a pity it was that this woman, this witch, would some day get all that money. The maid cast a sidelong look at her mistress, which made her pretty but coarse face positively ugly.

Mrs. Sophia Tiralla stood weeping. Her shoulders drooped so dejectedly, and her head was bent so low, that you would have thought all the cares of the world were weighing her down. Her husband had given up his useless attempts to approach her, he stood as if rooted to the spot, and his pale blue, sleepy eyes wandered from the woman to the maid, and then from the maid to the woman in perplexed surprise.

"If only I knew what was the matter, darling," he said at last in a dispirited voice. "Good heavens! what flea has bitten you?"

The servant burst into a loud guffaw. How very comical it sounded. She couldn't compose herself [Pg 12]again, it really was too funny. A flea. – ha-ha, a flea! She thrust her fist into her mouth and bit it, so as to suppress her laughter.

Her mistress cast her an angry look. "How dare you? Go to your work. Dalej, dalej."

The maid grew frightened. Ugh, how furious her mistress looked! Her glance was as cold as steel. "Let that wicked look fall on the dog!" she murmured, protecting her face with her arm. And then the thought came to her, "Oh, dear, now she won't give me that apron!" All the same, it was better to keep on good terms with the mistress, she was the one who ruled the house. So she whispered in a tone of excuse:

"I'm sorry, Pani, but it was so funny when gospadarz – big, fat gospodarz – compared himself to a tiny little flea. I couldn't help it, I had to laugh." And she gave a waggish laugh, in which Mrs. Tiralla this time joined. There was something merciless in the laughter of the two women.

But Mr. Tiralla did not notice the mercilessness of it in his delight at seeing his wife in a better humour. He took her by the hand as if nothing had happened, and drew her into the room.

And she allowed him to draw her in. If he, even now, didn't notice that she hated him, in spite of all she had done, didn't even notice it when she told him it to his face, then he should feel it. It was his own fault. A cruel smile played for a moment round her short upper Up, but then the tears again started to her eyes.

As she was sitting there with him – he had tried to draw her on his knee, but she had adroitly evaded him, and had squeezed herself in between the table and the wall, so that he could not reach her so easily – certain thoughts were chasing each other with frightful [Pg 13]rapidity through her brain. She had often thought them out before, but they always made her tremble anew. A deep silence reigned in the room.

But Mr. Tiralla did not desire any further entertainment. It was enough for him if she were there, if he had the feeling that he only required to stretch out his arm in order to grasp her with his strong hand, to draw her to him, to caress her, even if she did not want it. After all, he was the stronger. He had thrown himself full length on the bench near the stove, but he could scarcely find room there for his huge limbs, which stuck out on all sides. He sighed. He had already tramped across his fields that morning, and had seen that the winter corn was getting on all right, had heard the busy flails keeping time in the barn, had looked for a long time at the cows chewing the cud in the shed, and had stroked his two splendid horses. That had, indeed, been a day's work. Now he had a perfect right to rest a little. Besides, there was snow in the air, a big, thick, grey silence outside; so it was much more comfortable to lie in the warm room until the barschtsch, and the cabbage and the sausages were brought in. And after dinner it would be nice to lie down again, until it was time to go to the village inn. There he would meet the gentry, sometimes even the priest. His Reverence didn't disdain to drink a glass with them now and then, and talk over the news, although he didn't care for it to be mentioned later on that he had been there. Quite a sociable man, that priest, and not so strict as Sophia by a long way. Mr. Tiralla felt quite friendly towards him. He wouldn't cast his wickedness in his teeth. Ah, Sophia really did exaggerate. Didn't he go to Mass every Sunday, and every festival, too? Nobody could really expect him to go to matins as well; [Pg 14]hadn't he to get out of his bed much too early both summer and winter as it was? And weren't his particular saints hanging in his room; and wasn't he always ready to give what the Church demanded? There was no reason for him to be a hypocrite into the bargain; and when a man has got a pretty wife he wants to see something of her as well. So it would be difficult for her to blacken him in the priest's eyes, as he very well knew what a healthy man required.

Mr. Tiralla stretched his mighty limbs and opened his arms wide. Then he said, "Just come here, darling."

"What do you want?"

The man's spirit of enterprise vanished as he heard her icy tone. "Why don't you speak more kindly to me?" he said despondently. "You know I don't want anything from you. I – I only wanted to ask you if you would like a new dress for St. Stephen's Day? Or what would you say to a pair of ear-rings? Or would you, perhaps, like a new fur cloak when we drive to Posen to engage servants?"

"I don't want anything," she answered in the same cold voice.

"Just think it over, something will be sure to occur to you," he said encouragingly. "Only let me know what you want. Nothing will be too expensive for me if it's for you. Come, little woman, do come here." He again opened his arms.

But she did not move.

"Don't you want a new dress? I saw some beautiful materials in Gnesen. Rosenthal has a wonderful display in his window – oh my, such finery! Cherry-coloured cloth and black braid to trim it with. The prefect's wife wears such a dress on Sundays. Wouldn't you like to have the same, darling?"

[Pg 15]

Her eyes began to sparkle. New dresses! A dress like such a fine lady! She took a fancy to it; but only for a few moments, then the light in her eyes again died out. What was the good of that dress at the side of such a man? She shook her head energetically as she answered: "I won't have one."

He saw he would never attain his object in that way. Although Mr. Tiralla hated getting up he soon saw that he would have to squeeze himself down beside her behind the table or drag her out by main force. And then if she cried out, that lovely little dove, "Go away! Leave me, you beast!" then he would have to close her mouth with a kiss, by main force.

Mr. Tiralla cursed as he put one of his big feet down on the ground. It vexed him to have his peace disturbed in this way; but he could not resist her, she was too charming. He groaned as he rose from his seat.

She noted his approach with terror. Oh, now he would clasp those big white arms round her, which were all covered with downy hairs, those arms into which her mother had delivered her whilst she was still young and harmless, and had only thought of the dear saints, and had felt no desire for any man. Now she was no longer young and harmless, and – a sudden thought flashed through her brain – oh, perhaps she could persuade him to buy poison then! Poison for the rats! She had often broached the subject before, but he had never wanted to do it. He did not believe in the rats, and even if they were to jump over his nose he would not bring any poison into the house. The thought was repugnant to him. When she wanted poison for the vermin on the farm she had never been able to get it, except by producing a paper signed by Mr. Tiralla himself.

[Pg 16]

She shuddered. She shook as though with terror. "Oh, those rats!" Then she got up hesitatingly. She sat down again, as if undecided – she fell back almost heavily into her chair; but then she gave herself a jerk. She rose quickly, went up to her husband, and sat down on his knee.

The sudden change in her almost disconcerted him. But then he felt very happy. She had not been so nice to him for ever so long. She stroked his head, and he leant his forehead against her soft bosom, and felt it heave.

"How fast your heart beats."

"No wonder," she answered shortly. And then she kissed his bristly hair and fondled him. "My old man, my darling, you'll really buy me a new dress? Really?"

He nodded eagerly, he was too comfortable to speak.

"I should like," she continued, pressing his head still more firmly against her bosom, "I should like to wear such a cherry-coloured dress, trimmed with black braid, as the prefect's wife has. If she saw me in it in Gradewitz, or if your acquaintances in the town saw me, wouldn't they say, 'How well red suits Mrs. Tiralla. What a pretty wife Anton Tiralla has'!"

He smirked.

"But what good would it be to me?" she continued, and her voice sank and became quite feeble. "The rats would devour it."

"Drat the rats! Leave them alone!" He jumped up angrily, in spite of his great love for her; she had bothered him too often and too much with her rats. "To the devil with you and your everlasting rats!" Once for all poison should never come into his house; rather a thousand rats than one grain of poison. [Pg 17]Where there's poison the Evil One has a hand in the game.

But she again forced his head down on her bosom. He must remain there. It was as if he were being bewitched by her hands as they played about on his head.

He stammered like a child. "Leave the rats alone. Give me a kiss – there, there." He pointed to the back of his ears, to this place, that place, and she pinched her eyes together and pressed her mouth to his hair.

She drew a deep and trembling breath, as if she were struggling for air. She opened wide her firmly closed eyes and stared at one particular point – always at one point. It must be! Then she said with a voice that sounded like a caress, while her face, which he could not see, was distorted with aversion:

"Would you like to sleep, darling? There, lean on my arm. Let Marianna do the work alone, I'll stop with you. Oh, my darling, I'm so frightened."

She clung to him more closely, so closely that her warm body seemed to wind itself round him. "The rats, ugh!" She gave a trembling sigh. "Those horrid rats! We'll put poison, won't we, darling? Poison for rats; but soon, or I shall die of fright."

[Pg 18]

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