Sunday, 12 June 2011

Thirty-one and sixty-three - a short story

The horse-drawn carriage clattered over the border into France; I was safe. I'd soon by in Nancy. From there, a railway train would take me on to Paris. A world away from the horrors of war in my tragic, enslaved, Poland. Light autumn rain tapped on the windows of the carriage, wind rushed through the tall poplars that lined the road, sending leaves into flight. Afternoon was beginning to turn to evening.

I recognised the man seated opposite as a fellow Pole; we switched to our native tongue from the French in which we had hitherto been making small talk. I presented my credentials, and he his. It transpired, that he was an émigré - he had been living in France now for over 30 years, since the failure of the 1831 uprising against the Russians.

"Sir - how goes the War with Russia?" he asked me, once he knew where I was from. "Not well. Not well at all, Sir," I answered, my head hung low. I told him how the company of riflemen under my command during a skirmish along the banks of the _____ river near ___ had been decimated by a far larger Russian force supported by artillery and Cossack cavalry. Along with the remnants of my routed unit, I fled deep into the forests. On my return to my ancestral home in _____, I learned from my mother that the Russians were looking for me; and that I should leave Poland. I have family in Paris, and so three weeks ago I left my mother, my young brother and my sisters. "And so, Sir, here I am."

The man, Count Adam ________, was well-dressed, stout, grey-whiskered and bald; his face expressive and mobile, indicative of the moods that passed rapidly through his mind. "So - you too have abandoned your fatherland, Sir!" he said,the slightest tingle of spite in his voice, enough to put me on the defensive. "Yes, Sir, for the time being I have." He could sense resignation in my voice, so I felt that counter-attack was necessary. "And you, Sir," I enquired, "have you been here in France while Poland rises up against the foe?" I looked around at our fellow passengers. Sitting by the Count, a woman in her mid-50s, dressed in black, not unattractive, who I took for a Lotharingian widow. She was taking no interest in our discussion, gazing instead at the passing scenery. Beside her a chatty German merchant talking to a French farmer opposite about livestock prices; between the farmer and me, a priest, thumbing his breviary.

Count Adam took me into his confidence. "I was born in Poland more than sixty years ago - like you, as a young man I took up arms against Russia. Born with the Century, I was. And when the November Uprising of 1831 was crushed, I left Poland, vowing to return to it only when it became free." I pondered the coincidence. "I too, am 31 Sir," I told him. He thought for an instant. "A good age for a officer. No longer a callow youth, prone to run at the first whiff of powder, no longer prone to take daring, though uncalculated risks." He smiled sadly and looked out of the window, before turning back to face me directly.

"And 63, Sir - is that a good age for a soldier?" he asked. "For a general, maybe!" I replied with diplomacy. "Well, Sir, I am no general. But I fight too. I fight, Mr _______. I can no longer fight with musket and sabre; I fight with printing ink and paper - and ideas!" he replied, patting his briefcase. "Pamphlets, Mr _______! I fight for our fatherland with pamphlets!"

I was hoping he'd pull out of his briefcase an example of his pamphlet, but my expectations proved unfounded. Instead, he whispered to me in a harsh tone: "Sir, I am going on to Paris to print patriotic material - to strengthen the nation's resolve. To stop its young noblemen and officers from fleeing the country they should love!"

"What is it to love one's country?" I asked him.

[Click here for the concluding part of Thirty-One and Sixty-Three]

This time two years ago:
Jeziorki to Jeziorki - the big rail loop

This time three years ago:
Automotive miscellany

This time four years ago:
South Warsaw sunsets

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