Fading Voices

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Fading Voices  (1883) 
by Bolesław Prus, translated by Christopher Kasparek
Bolesław Prus

Having returned whole from the fifth military campaign of his life, the Colonel at the end of 1871 resigned his commission and settled in Lyon. He was only sixty-five and looked so hale that his friends urged him to marry. But the Colonel did not want to marry. He said that it's true, his legs were still strong, but he had become bored with the France of the lawyers, and he was thinking of returning to his own people. And en route, with a woman, he would have a lot of trouble.

He wanted to leave at once; he actually began seeking a buyer for his house and garden. Meanwhile three of the Colonel's compatriots and comrades from his very first campaign had arrived in Lyon. The veterans easily found one another, still more easily renewed their acquaintance, and henceforth went about as a foursome. Desiring to drink black coffee together at a Polish café, they had to lunch together at the same restaurant. Then each might go wherever his eyes took him, so long as he reported in time for the session of whist. However, since delays would occur, for the sake of order they watched one another and—went about together all day, sometimes in twos, sometimes single-file, but usually abreast.

Their main occupation was conversing about old military campaigns and current politics. Over a year's time, the old soldiers discovered all the errors of Kossuth, Mac-Mahon, Bazaine and earlier commanders. And the following year they drew up war plans so astute that, had they been executed, the world would have been a far different place.

In the third year, one of them died. They mourned him as a brother, but a month after the funeral they decided that the dead man's politics had harbored a great flaw: for Bismarck, though a German, was nevertheless a genius, and who knew but he might yet be of use.

In the fourth year, a second comrade died quite unexpectedly. The Colonel took to his bed in distress and henceforth did not play whist with his remaining colleague, but only marriage. The old boys now spoke less with each other, but they read more newspapers. And having looked about them and combined what the English dailies wrote with what sometimes appeared in the German ones, they concluded that Bismarck was not at all as bad as he seemed, but that—he must be cautious...

"In politics, my dear Captain," said the Colonel, "the prime virtue is caution. No doubt about it!..."

"I've always been of that opinion, my dear Colonel," replied the Captain. "And you may recall, I've often defended Bismarck..."

"Actually, you've more often said that he was a scoundrel..."

"Me, Colonel?... It was that late Kudelski, but mainly Domejko, God rest their souls!..."

Then he added:

"True, they were good officers, but—neither had a head for politics... even if they have both been called to God's judgment."

Finally—of a certain winter, the Captain died.

For the nonce, the Colonel showed no grief; he saw to the funeral and arranged for it to be worthy of an officer of two armies. He did not shed a single tear, but when at the graveside there rang out the infantry's salvos of farewell to his colleague, the old man suddenly reeled and fell, as though all the shots had been aimed at his chest.

They barely brought him back to his senses. For a few minutes he rested, then without anyone's help he got into a fiacre and rode home.

Next day an ad appeared in the local newspapers, announcing that the Colonel's house was for sale. A buyer was found quickly, and a week later the old man was preparing to take leave of hospitable France forever.

"Aren't you sorry to be leaving us, Colonel?" asked the notary who was drafting the papers for the sale.

"Yes, and no," replied the old man. "Yes, because you are a noble people whom it is worth shedding blood for. And no—because much has changed with you... You talk only of business, money, cuisine, partying... I'll do better, going back to my snows... There the people are different, they're my people. They'll understand me, and I'll understand them. Here things are terribly empty for me..."

The notary shook his head, but seeing the old man's fervor, he made no attempt at persuasion. He knew that a man will sometimes be swept away by a storm of homesickness and be carried off like a leaf that, if it could think, might think that it was returning to its old tree and will be reunited with it.

The Colonel went to Paris, made arrangements for the payments of his pension, presented his documents at the embassy, and obtained a passport. He met many friends who urged him to rest at least until summer. In vain. The old man, from the moment that he had told himself he was going back to his homeland, had been gripped by such a restlessness that he simply could not find a place for himself.

He was inattentive in conversation, surly in company. When he picked up a newspaper to divert himself, it seemed to him to be printed in Polish. Everywhere he was in a state of expectancy, as though at any moment there would appear someone unknown to him but whom he had long been awaiting. In the boulevards, over the thousand lights and the noisy ant-like swarms of people, he would see quiet snow-covered plains, black-forested horizons, here and there little straw-thatched houses and ancient roadside crosses.

It was as if he had two souls. One, he had brought with him from the old country; the other had since grown up within him and had been governing him despotically for forty-odd years. Now, suddenly, the young spirit had awoken, with all its store of memories and longings. It was ill at ease in Lyon, in Paris, at the theater, on the train. During the day it impeded his thoughts, and at night it seemed to the Colonel that someone was tossing him about the bed, was driving him out of the room, was sobbing within him and shouting in a heart-rending voice:

"Take me back to my people!..."

The old man departed Paris, without even saying goodbye to many people, and rode day and night for his homeland. His erect figure and characteristic movements drew the attention of the Germans, who—as they surveyed his swarthy, lean face, his trim white mustache, and the bow tie at his chin—suspected him of being a French general, if not a marshal.

"He must be traveling on a mission to St. Petersburg!..." whispered the Germans.

And since the old man kept peering out the window, they surmised that he was studying the German railroads—and they predicted a war on two fronts.

Toward morning, the train reached the border. The passport formalities took several hours. Some passengers ate, others napped. The Colonel could neither eat nor sleep; he went on a walk outside the station.

He walked down the railroad tracks for perhaps a verst or more. It began to dawn. In the east a light-colored ribbon appeared which gradually expanded until the entire heaven had assumed the color of green glass speckled with gray, white and pale-pink clouds.

After the stuffy atmosphere in the refreshment room, the cool breeze invigorated the old man—but it did not calm him. The Colonel had imagined that once he stepped into an open field, into his field, the homesickness would stand it no more inside his breast but would break out and fly off somewhere like a dove released from a cage. But this did not happen: instead of contentment, he experienced bewilderment. The horizon, once upon a time so expansive, seemed to him cramped. He saw no forests, only here and there the smoking chimneys of factories. There were no cottages or cottage gardens, only dreary brick houses amid snowdrifts. The very wind, instead of soughing between osier branches, pounded itself against an endless series of poles or wept in the telegraph bells like a lost orphan.

This was not the land that he had departed half a century ago!...

At the station, a bell rang out. The Colonel barely managed to resume his place in the carriage, when the train pulled out.

All along the way, the old man looked about him, hoping to find some thread to link reality with memory. Lost labor! It was a different country that lay at the bottom of his soul than spread out before his eyes. Peasants without their sukmana russet overcoats, Jews without their fox-fur caps, houses without trees, land without forest. He wasn't certain whether the very birds had not lost their voices.

He arrived at Warsaw late in the evening and put up at a second-rate hotel that superficially resembled the old-time inns. But here, too, he was in for a disappointment. Instead of the simple furniture of his day, upholstered in horsehair or hide, he found fashionable furniture, pictures of demimonde women, broken electric bells, and staff in stained coats. This was no old-style inn, but a seedy little foreign hotel.

Having more or less slept through the night, in the morning the Colonel went out on the town. He hired a carriage to take him round all the streets that he had once known. Unimaginable changes... The tall, white-and-red-striped lampposts had vanished, the manor houses and expansive gardens had vanished, replaced by rows of enormous tenements, built for the most part without order or taste. Even where, in his day, wild ducks had been hunted, there now stood a large, bustling, somehow strange city...

He did not recognize the people at all, either their clothes or their faces. More curious still, at moments it bothered him not to be hearing the hubbub of French conversations, to which his ear had grown accustomed for half a century!

After his ride he felt an emptiness even greater than in France, and resolved to seek human fellowship.

He had acquaintances here, various persons whom he had met in Paris and at the spas.

He jotted down several names and asked the concierge to look up their addresses. The next day, he was brought only one, that of a fairly wealthy man whom he had met ten years earlier at Vichy.

The Colonel immediately went there, and happened to find him at home.

At first the host did not recognize him, then, recognizing him, lapsed into confusion. Feverishly embracing the guest, he solicitously inquired whether he hadn't had difficulties with his passport?—and on being reassured on this point, he asked how long he planned to stay in Warsaw?

"I'd like to settle down here, provided, of course, I make some acquaintances," replied the Colonel.

"Oh!... here acquaintances are made easily. You may even find a colleague..."

"Whom?..." the old man interrupted briskly.

"He's a former French officer, too. Poor fellow!... he came without a penny and barely found a poor position... Today he can't forgive himself for having left France. Oh!... work is very hard to find here... thousands of young people seek for it in vain..."

"Well, I don't need it," replied the guest, laughing for the first time in a couple of months. "I have some cash and a colonel's pension."

The smile on the old man's martial face was evidently becoming, as the host, previously rather cool, suddenly waxed enthusiastic. He embraced the guest impulsively, called him "Colonel" a dozen times, reminded him of the many pleasant moments they had spent together at Vichy, introduced him to his entire family, and conjured him by all that was holy to regard this house as his own and to honor him tomorrow evening with a visit.

"We'll be having a couple of people over," said the host delightedly, "who will be honored to pay homage to a hero..."

"A retiree!..." the Colonel corrected him.

Despite this peculiar reception, the Colonel came the next evening. In the antechamber he was greeted personally by the host, who all but removed his galoshes for him and with much to-do ushered him into the parlor.

It was a dance evening, so the old man immediately found several dozen persons. He quickly made the acquaintance of some ladies, one of whom assured him that she remembered the Italian campaign, though she might have known the Hungarian campaign—the second expressed surprise that he had left "beautiful Paris," and the youngest asked timidly whether the Colonel danced the quadrille?...

Since the over-seventy-year-old veteran no longer did dance, when the music began, all her respect notwithstanding, she forgot about him. The soldier of Solferino and Gravelotte had to yield to the heroes of the waltz and contredanse, just as in France.

He went into the outer drawing rooms; there people were playing card games. The gracious host offered to round up some whist partners for him—two councilors and a president; but the old man declined, perhaps due to the memory of his last whist partners.

Thus he was left alone here too, which pleased the Colonel, as he could observe the people.

He listened in to their conversations. In one corner there was talk about carnival, in another about stock-exchange prices, in a third about the fair sex, in a fourth about politics, namely, that the Germans would inescapably eat them up.

The Colonel joined the latter group, but did not converse for long. Passing from one question to another, he at length heard that realpolitik should treat war as a business and that only a charlatan like Napoleon III could make war on someone else's behalf, for the sake of an idea.

He had more than once heard the same said in France—so why had he left her?...

The old man quietly stole away from the ball and returned to his inn. Lying down in bed, he began to dream, half-asleep, half-awake. When at moments he passed out from fatigue, it seemed to him that he had ceased being a man and was now the cross upon the collapsing grave in which rested his old comrades. And when he came to, he would whisper:

"What did I come back here for?..."

And he felt nostalgia for France.

The next day was a Sunday. The old man rose late and dressed slowly, pondering when he should return to France: today or tomorrow?... Here he was a stranger to everyone, and they to him.

He had a ground-floor number. When, about ten in the morning, he lifted the roller blind, he saw that a shabbily dressed man and a small boy were walking back and forth before his window.

It was bitterly cold, so in order to warm himself the pauper was stamping his feet on the sidewalk and slapping his arms, and he was rubbing the livid hands of the child, who had a longish overcoat, a straw hat, an unwiped nose, and ears bound up in a dirty kerchief .

Since the man who was pacing the courtyard kept peering at the Colonel's window, the old man noticed him and asked a waiter who this person was.

The waiter smiled and replied:

"He's a shoemaker!... He lives here in our garret and wants to show you to his boy..."

"Show me?... How does he know who I am?"

"He found out from the staff..."

The old man became thoughtful, and meanwhile the pauper kept pacing outside his window and rubbing the child's freezing hands.

The Colonel was going to go downtown for breakfast. He hurriedly donned his overcoat and, curious, went outside.

On seeing him, the man with the child stopped stock-still. He cocked his cap, furrowed his brow, drew himself up erect and clenched his fists, which made it appear that he intended to assault the Colonel, but in his own mind was meant to convey a salute.

Since his son kept blowing into his hands, in order to get his attention he struck the nape of the boy's neck with his fist, while continually looking at the old man as though the latter were a wolf, and all the time thinking that he was acting to the strictest rules of military etiquette.

The old man—stopped. He wanted to say something to the shabbily-dressed man, but was at a loss for words, and besides—there were some people in the courtyard. So they only glanced into one another's eyes, and the Colonel slowly went off toward the street.

Then the shoemaker said to the child:

"Wojtuś!..."

"What?"

"Are you going to be like that, you scamp?..."

"Why shouldn't I be, for crying out loud!..." replied the child with the dirty nose.

"Remember to be, or I'll knock your teeth out, even if you're grown up!..."

Meanwhile the Colonel went to breakfast, but ate little, for he was in a hurry. Then he went downtown and soon—rented himself a private apartment.

The ugly tenements and new people no longer put him off. And when he happened to be crossing Diamonds Street [ulica Karowa] and looked down at the Wisła River, he again saw that expansive horizon which he had formerly viewed, the same forests, and felt that invigorating breeze which he had missed for half a century.

"I'll stay here!" he thought.



This is a translation and has a separate copyright status from the original text. The license for the translation applies to this edition only.
Original:
This work was published before January 1, 1923, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.
 
Translation:
This work is licensed under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.