An Obscure Apostle: A Dramatic Story

Produced by Andrew Leader of www.polishwriting.net

An Obscure Apostle

A Dramatic Story

TRANSLATED BY C.S. DE SOISSONS FROM THE ORIGINAL POLISH OF
MME. ORZESZKO
LONDON

GREENING & CO., LTD.

20 CECIL COURT, CHARING CROSS ROAD

1899

Printed by Cowan & Co., Limited Perth.

PREFACE

ELIZA ORZESZKO

In Lord Palmerston’s days, the English public naturally heard a great
deal about Poland, for there were a goodly number of Poles, noblemen
and others, residing in London, exiles after the unsuccessful
revolution, who, believing that England would help them to recover
their lost liberty, made every possible effort to that end through
Count Vladislas Zamoyski, the prime minister’s personal friend. But
even in those times, when the English press was writing much about the
political situation in Poland, little was said about that which
constitutes the greatest glory of a nation, namely, its literature and
art, which alone can be secure of immortality. Only lately, in fact,
has any public attention been paid by English people to Polish
literature. However, among the authors who have attracted considerable
attention of late, is the writer of “By Fire and Sword,” whose “Quo
Vadis,” has met with a phenomenal reception. Henryk Sienkiewicz has by
his popularity proved that in unfortunate, almost forgotten, Poland,
there is an abundance of literary talent and an important output of
works of which few English readers have any conception. For instance,
who has ever heard, in Great Britain, of Adam Michiewicz the great
Polish poet, who, critics declare, can be placed in the same category
with Homer, Virgil, Dante, Tasso, Klopstock, Camoens, and Milton?
Joseph Kraszewski as a novel writer occupies in Poland as high a
position as Maurice Jokai does in Hungarian literature, while Mme.
Eliza Orzeszko is considered to be the Polish Georges Sand, even by the
Germans, who are in many respects the rivals of Slavs in politics and
literature.

Henryk Sienkiewicz, asked by an interviewer what he thought about the
contemporary Polish literary talents, replied: “At the head of all
stand Waclaw Sieroszewski and Stefan Zeromski; they are young, and very
promising writers. But Eliza Orzeszko still holds the sceptre as a
novelist.”

When the “Revue des Deux Mondes” asked the authors of different
nationalities to furnish an essay on women of their respective
countries, Mme. Orzeszko was chosen among the Polish writers to write
about the Polish women. It may be stated that translations of her
novels appeared in the same magazine more than twenty years ago. She is
not only a talented but also a prolific writer. She has suffered much
in her life, and her sufferings have brought out those sterling
qualities of soul and heart, which make her books so intensely human,
and characterise all her works, and place her high above contemporary
Polish writers. The present volume may stand as a proof of her
all-embracing talent.

C.S. DE SOISSONS.

AN OBSCURE APOSTLE

INTRODUCTION

On the summits of civilisation the various branches of the great tree
of humanity are united and harmonised. Education is the best apostle
of universal brotherhood. It polishes the roughness without and cuts
the overgrowth within; it permits of the development, side by side
and with mutual respect, of the natural characteristics of different
individuals; it prunes even religious beliefs produced by the needs
of the time, and reduces them to their simplest expression, the
result being that people can live without antipathies.

Quite a different state of affairs exists in the social valley
unlighted by the sun of knowledge. There people are the same to-day
as they were in the remote centuries. Time, while making tombs for
the dead people, has not buried with them the forms which, being
continually regenerated, create among amazed societies unintelligible
anachronisms. Here exist distinctions which, with sharp edges, push
back everything which belongs not to them; here are crawling moral
and physical miseries which are unknown, even by name, to those who
have reached the summits; here is a gathering of dark figures,
standing out against the background of the world, resembling vague
outlines of sphinxes keeping guard over the graveyards; here are
widely-spread petrifications of faiths, sentiment and customs,
testifying by their presence that geniuses of many centuries can
simultaneously rule the world. Patricians and plebeians changed their
formal parts. The first became defenders and propagators of equality;
the second stubbornly hold to distinctions. And if in times of yore
oppression was directed by those who stood high against those who, in
dust and humility, swarmed in the depths, in our times, from the
depths arise unhealthy exhalations, which poison life and make the
roads of civilisation difficult to the chosen ones.

Such unfortunate valleys, rendering many people unhappy, separating
the rest of the world by a chain of high mountains, exist in
Israelitic society, as well as in the society of other nations, and
there they are even more numerous than elsewhere. Their too long
existence is the result of many historical causes and characteristics
of the race. To-day they constitute a phenomenon; attracting the
thinker and the artist by their great influence and the originality
of their colouring, composed of mysterious shadows and bright lights.
But who is familiar with them and who studies them? Even those who,
on account of the same blood and traditions, should be attracted
toward these localities, plunged in darkness, send there neither
painters nor apostles—sometimes they do not even believe in their
existence. For instance, what a surprise it would be to Israelitic
society, gathered in the largest city in the country, composed of
cultivated men and of women, who by their beauty, refinement and wit
are in no way inferior to the women of other nations: what a surprise
it would be to this society, gowned in purple and fine linen, if
somebody would all at once describe Szybow and what is transpiring
there!

Szybow? On what planet is it, and if on ours, what population has it?

The people there, are they white, black or brown?

Well then, readers, I am going to make you acquainted with that
deep—very deep—social valley. Not long ago there was enacted there
an interesting drama worthy of your kind glance—of your heart’s
strong throb and a moment of long, sad thought. But in order to bring
out facts and figures they must be thrown against the background on
which they have risen and developed, and in the deep perspectives of
which there are elements which are the causes of their existence.
Therefore you must permit me, before raising the curtain which hides
the first scenes of the drama, to tell you in brief the history of
the small town.

CHAPTER I

Far, far from the line of the railroads which run through the
Bialorus (a part of Poland around the city of Mohileff which now
belongs to Russia), far from even the navigable River Dzwina, in one
of the most remote corners of the country, amidst quiet, large, level
fields—still existing in some parts of Europe—between two sandy
roads which disappear into the depths of a great forest, there is a
group of gray houses of different sizes standing so closely together
that anyone looking at them would say that they had been seized by
some great fright and had crowded together in order to be able to
exchange whispers and tears.

This is Szybow, a town inhabited by Israelites, almost exclusively,
with the exception of a small street at the end of the place in
which, in a few houses, live a few very poor burghers and very quiet
old retired officials.

It is the only street that is quiet, and the only street in which
flowers bloom in summer. In the other streets no flowers bloom, and
they are dreadfully noisy. There the people talk and move about
continually, industriously, passionately, within the houses and in
the narrow dark alleys called streets, and in the round,
comparatively large market-place in the centre of the town, around
which there are numerous doors of stinking small shops. In this
market-place after a week of transactions by the people of the
vicinity, there remains an inconceivable quantity of dirt and
sweepings, and here is also the high, dusky, strangely-shaped meeting
house.

This building is one of the specimens, rare to-day, of Hebrew
architecture. A painter and an archeologist would look upon it with
an equal amount of interest. At first glance it can be easily seen
that it is a synagogue, although it does not look like other
churches. Its four thick walls form a monotonous quadrangle, and its
brown colour gives it a touch of dignity, sadness, and antiquity.
These walls must be very old indeed, for they are covered with green
strips of moss. The higher parts of the walls are cut with a row of
long, narrow, deeply-set windows, recalling, by their shape, the
loop-holes of a fortress. The whole building is covered by a roof
whose three large heavy turrets, built one upon the other, look like
three moss-covered gigantic mushrooms.

Every gathering, whether of greater importance or of common
occurrence, was held here, sheltered beneath the brown walls and
mushroom-like roof of the temple. Here in the large round courtyard
are the heders (Hebrew schools), where the kahals (church committees)
gather. Here stands a low black house with two windows, a real mud
hovel, inhabited for several centuries and for many generations by
Rabbis of the family of Todros, famous in the community and even far
beyond it. Here at least everything is clean, and while in other
parts of the place, in the spring especially, the people nearly sink
into the mud, the school courtyard is always clean. It would be
difficult to find on it even a wisp of straw, for as soon as anything
is noticed, it is at once picked up by a passer-by, anxious to keep
clean the place around the temple.

How important Szybow is to the Israelites living in Bialorus, and
even in Lithuania, can be judged by an embarrassing incident which
occurred to a merry but unwise nobleman while in conversation with a
certain Jewish agent, more spiritual than humble.

The agent was standing at the door of the office of the noble, bent a
little forward, smiling, always ready to please and serve the noble,
and say a witty word to put him in good humour. The noble was feeling
pretty good, and joked with the Jew.

“Chaimek,” spoke he, “wert thou in Cracow?”

“I was not, serene lord.”

“Then thou art stupid.”

Chaimek bowed.

“Chaimek, wert thou in Rome?”

“I was not, serene lord.”

“Then thou art very stupid.”

Chaimek bowed again, but in the meanwhile he had made two steps

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