Bartek

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Historical Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
It is a story about village life in Poland during a war with Russia in 1831.

Submitted: May 08, 2017

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Submitted: May 08, 2017

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On that day Bartek, together with his sickly wife and five children of different ages, was weeding his narrow strip of land sown with millet, that one being called ‘six furrows’ because it was narrow enough for him to follow his ox and a wooden plough only three times to and fro. Barren and sandy was Bartek’s land, which in fact wasn’t his own but the squire’s and for which, and eighteen other similar strips, he had to work the squire’s land three days a week.

Every year a few months preceding the harvest was the time of scarcity for his family when he had to ask the squire or the vicar for a bushel of buckwheat to feed the seven hungry mouths. ‘Because you don’t work hard enough’ the vicar said once, while in return Bartek, who a moment later was ploughing the padre’s garden, threw a torrent of swear words at his naughty ox. ‘Tell him to stop at once. That’s a holy place’, the vicar, then back in the vicarage but with the window open to be able to hear comments he had expected, told the cook, and, reluctantly, she reported the command to the ploughman. ‘Bring him here to try the job and we’ll see whether he swears or not’ was Bartek’s cheeky reply.

However, that morning Bartek was away from a watchful eye of the vicar and wondered if it wouldn’t be amiss to leave the others to go on working while he would pop into the inn for a moment if only because some of his neighbours might be enjoying themselves there. The downside of his intent was that the innkeeper, old and grumpy Moshek, always put a mark on his board whenever Bartek drank on credit and there were quite a few of them, those marks. Deep in thought Bartek didn’t even notice a sharp stone on which he hurt his finger. He swore, as usual in such cases, but he soon forgot about it because one of the girls shouted ‘Daddy, daddy. There are some people riding on the highway’.

He stood up from his knees and put his hand up over his eyes not to be blinded by the sun. Indeed, some Russian or Polish soldiers emerged from the woods galloping at full speed. To his horror, when they reached Bartek’s field, they stopped and one of them beckoned to him to come over. He thought for a moment if it wouldn’t be better to run away in the opposite direction but for the sake of his wife and daughters he decided to try to be brave. Yet he was paralysed with fear and his legs hardly moved.  He remembered when Russian soldiers were passing thorough the village taking all the food from the manor house and from the peasants, he was a little boy then, and the old squire said that they were chasing the French out of the country. Those Russian soldiers were brutal and hungry but they were winners so they could be kindhearted sometimes. This war they were losing, at least that was the vicar’s opinion, and only a few weeks before they burned down one of the neighbouring villages.

Approaching them now he could hear a language that didn’t sound Russian at first but then one of them shouted to him ‘Bystreee, bystreee’, which Bartek knew meant ‘quickly, quickly’. The man shouting was a Cossack soldier, like most of the others, wearing a blue uniform. Bartek was so confused that they had to repeat their questions using Polish and Russian words a few times. Finally he understood that they asked him how to get to the river. When he told them, the short and ugly rider looking important, a general perhaps, and as the only one wearing a dark green uniform, said something sharply, not in Russian though, and they rode away.

Bartek took a deep breath and started to walk back slowly. When he came closer to his wife and girls, they could hardly stop weeping noisily, convinced that he would be shot and killed or taken away. Bartek looked at those who 'the Providence had given you to take care of’; those were the vicar's words. With them having had only a little breakfast and with their feet wrapped up in rags and their dresses too thin for a cold spring day, he was about to comfort them with some kind words. In particular he worried about the oldest one who, people said, had weak lungs and who coughed incessantly in the same manner as his two boys had done before they died in the course of winter a couple of years before.

Nevertheless, Bartek didn't say anything now but he sighed and despite the vicar’s malicious comments and Moshek’s wanting his money back, he decided to go to the inn in the hope that somebody would stand him a glass, and he would be able to sit in his favourite corner, next to his comrades, who talking, laughing and spitting on the clay floor, drank their sorrows away.

A few weeks later, the proud and ambitious general, urged by his impatient monarch, managed to regain his glory killing, burning and taking prisoners, only to die miserably of cholera in a gloomy village house between one battle and another. His dying wish was to be buried among the green hills of Silesia; he was born and brought up there. But the Emperor’s opinion was that he should serve Russia’s glory further on, and he had his corpse transported to St. Petersburg.

Bartek’s daughter meanwhile got steadily worse and one night, lying in bed thin and pale, she asked him faintly if she was really passing away, to which he said nothing but run away to the cowshed, drying his face with his dirty sleeve.  The following day he went to the manor house to ask the squire for a few boards to make a coffin.
 

 


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