« PreviousContinue »
NINETEENTH CENTURY, CONTEMPORARY REVIEW, WESTMINSTER REVIEW,
QUARTERLY AND EDINBURGH REVIEWS.
A STRANGE CONVERSION.
LAST year, in the early spring, or rather towards the close of winter, I received a somewhat singular communication. The last of my pupils (I am a teacher of English) had gone home; the interminable series of questions and answers according to the book of Ollendorff, or other "methods" equally interesting, had come to an end at last, and I was preparing for my daily after-supper walk round Cracow, before going to rest, when the door-bell rang, and the postman placed a letter in my hand. It was in a crabbed and shaky handwriting, quite unknown to me, and ran as follows:
23 WOLSKA, 7th Feb. 1904. SIR,-I chanced the other day to hear your name mentioned as a teacher of English in this town, and have managed
VOL. CLXXVIII.-NO. MLXXVII.
to get your address.
A man considerably over fifty, who lost his father when only twelve years old, cannot, as a general rule, be expected to remember much about him. Yet, although the feelings which mine instilled into me as a boy had long been dulled in that dreary struggle of every
day life, which forces even the son of the sternest Revolutionist to think less of freedom and more of bread, I could not read these lines without some emotion. For the writer had not mistaken: I was the only living descendant of Severin D. The surname was a rare one in Poland; the Christian name was not common either; the details given answered to the facts of my father's life, so far as I knew them. It was true that he had never mentioned Brontoski's name to me; but then, he surely would never have told his life-story in such detail to a child. It had been, I knew, his proudest boast that he was one of the band of students who stormed the Warsaw Arsenal, and searched the Palace to seize the Grand Duke Constantine; and I could not doubt that my father and the Severin Dknown to Brontoski were one and the same.
"A very old man." Surely. My father was twenty in 1831, and had he lived, would now be ninety three. Brontoski could not be more than a couple of years younger. Very old, and possibly very poor. Thereupon came a thought which I must confess to my shame. Though not much past middle age (for my father did not settle down and marry in England until 1849), I am often tempted to give way to the meaner vices which old age, following on a life of hard work and scanty savings, brings along with it; and I found myself rather anxiously wondering whether the letter, curt
and dignified as it was, might not be merely the prelude to an appeal for money, which, if I went to see Brontoski, it would be impossible to resist. True, Volska Street was the Faubourg St Germain of Cracow; but that meant only that the ransom, if exacted, would be heavier. However, the struggle between stinginess and curiosity, aided perhaps by some other feeling, ended to the advantage of the latter. Presently I was on my way to the address given, recalling as I went the few reminiscences of my childhood connected with my father, a Revolutionist of the old stamp and of grim humour; ready to lead a band of soythemen against a battery any day; partly anglicised in speech and manner, and yet in both strikingly distinct from the inhabitants of the tiny country town on whose outskirts our cottage stood. Focussed on the mental screen, his image appeared, as I had so often seen him: smoking a long and undoubtedly English clay pipe, but drinking milkless tea at the same time out of a tumbler with a slice of lemon in it; assiduously reading the London papers, but always the telegrams from Poland and Russia first, with many muttered commentaries and predictions of a rising that was close at hand. It came indeed as he had foretold, but in 1863, one month or a little more after he had made his submission to the greatest tyrants.
It was my father's greatest desire that I should one day follow in his footsteps. The
thought was naturally pleasing to me too; and I listened with deep interest to all he told me, and used to gaze on his scarred hand-the scar was from a wound got in a fight at close quarters with a Russian officer whom he killed-with a feeling of awe not unmixed with pride. This desire of his would often flash out on occasions when it was least expected; as when, for instance, on my coming home from school with a black eye one day, he checked my English mother's lamentations (who was not by any means of the Spartan breed) by saying, "It's all right; let him give and take fisticuffs now, wounds some day;" or as when, she having forbidden me to witness the killing of a pig at a neighbour's farm, he removed the prohibition in these words: "Pig's blood, Russian bloodit's all the same; let him go,he must learn not to flinch from the sight." But this was not to be. I was yet a little boy when the insurrection broke out; and all my life through I never had the chance of handling a rifle.
An old woman, with very white hair and a look of mournful resignation, showed me into the flat where Brontoski lived; and I saw at a glance round the sitting-room into which she ushered me that my apprehensions had been unfounded, and that Brontoski must be at least in easy circumstances. Several pictures by well-known painters of patriotic subjects hung round the walls; the furniture, though not showy, was evi
dently of considerable worth; and there was a picturesque display of arms crossed sabres, richly inlaid yataghans, and old carbines which no doubt had seen much service -artistically grouped on a ground of crimson-velvet hanging, with the Polish the Polish eagle above wrought in silver. As the old lady left me there, saying she must put things in order in Ladislaus' room before she introduced me, I mechanically took up one of the many newspapers which lay on the table. To my surprise it was a number of the Czas' of 1863. I looked over the others,-some were older, but not a single one was of more recent date.
Just then the door opened, and I was asked into the bedroom. I certainly was very deeply struck with the personal appearance of my father's old friend, although my powers of language and description may perhaps fail to convey my impression to the reader. He was lying on his bed, breathing heavily, and propped up with several pillows and cushions. As I have said, he must have been over ninety; yet his hair was still plentiful, and, in parts at least, only a steely grey. His chin and cheeks were shaven; all his linen was spotlessly white; and there was about his person and belongings a certain air of military order, and a neatness the want of which too often makes old age seem less venerable than it really is. In his youth he certainly had been handsome, and there was also