|Maksymilian Gierymski, Kamienne Schodki|
In last week's block there was a chapter in which the elderly clerk Ignacy Rzecki is sent by his boss Wokulski to have a look at a house he recently bought. One of the tenants he meets during the visit is a young student with a volatile temperament and a worldview that oscillates somewhere between socialism and nihilism. I was just tickled that the character (or stereotype) of the twentysomething urban college student from a book written 120 years ago should be so immediately familiar, but the ever-perspicacious Mastah P. hit the nail squarely on head, remarking that the student is the spitting image of the Occupy/millennial strawman conservatives in the United States rail against with such vitriol.
And so I'd like to share the scene with y'all. This would be the third excerpt from Lalka that has appeared on this blog; the conversation between Wokulski and the doctor and Wokuski's Paris experience would be the first and second. Anyway, enjoy!
We left the apartment and stopped at a door on the staircase. The agent knocked cautiously while the blood ran from my head to my heart, and from my heart down into my boots. It might even have leaked out of my boots and away down the stairs to the gate, had not someone inside replied: "Come in . . ."
We entered. Three beds. A young man with a black beard in student's garb was lying on one, with a book in his hand and his feet on the bed-rail. The clothes on the other beds looked as if a hurricane had swept through the room and turned everything upside down. I also saw a trunk, an empty valise, and many books on shelves, on the trunk and on the floor also. Finally there were a few bent chairs and ordinary unpolished tables where, on looking more closely, I observed a painted chess-board and overturned chess-men.
Then I felt quite faint: for, next to the chess-men I saw two human skulls: in one was tobacco, and the other held sugar.
"What's this?" asked the bearded young man without getting up.
"This is Mr Rzecki, the landlord's plenipotentiary," said the agent, indicating me.
The young man got up on one elbow, eyed me sharply and said: "The landlord's . . .? At this moment I am landlord here, and do not recollect appointing this gentleman . . ."
This reply was so strikingly simple that Wirski and I were dumbfounded. Meanwhile, the young man rose lazily from the bed and began buttoning up his trousers and waistcoat without the slightest haste. Despite the systematic manner with which he followed this occupation, I am certain that at least half the buttons on his garments remained unbuttoned.
"Aaaah!" he yawned. "Pray sit down, gentlemen," he said, gesticulating in such a manner that I did not know whether he was asking us to be seated on the valise or on the floor. "Warm, Mr Wirski," he added, "ain't it? Aaaah!"
"As a matter of fact, your neighbour opposite has been complaining about you young gentlemen," the agent replied with a smile.
"What the deuce?"
"That you wander naked about the room . . ."
The young man at once flew into a temper: "Has the old fool gone off his head? Does he expect us to wear fur coats in a heatwave like this? The impudence of the man, upon my word . . ."
"Well, please don't forget he has a grown-up daughter . . ."
"What's that to me? I'm not her father. The old booby! Upon my word, he's lying, we don't go about naked."
"I've seen you with my own eyes," the agent interrupted.
"That's a lie, upon my word," the young man exclaimed, flushing with anger, "it's true that Maleski goes about without his shirt on, and Patkiewicz goes about without underpants, but in a shirt. So Miss Leokadia sees an entire costume . . ."
"Yes, and she also has to draw all the curtains," the agent replied.
"It's the old man who draws them, not her," the student replied with a gesture, "she peeps through the chinks in the curtains. Anyway, my dear sir, if Miss Leokadia is allowed to vex the whole yard, then surely Maleski and Patkiewicz have the right to walk about as they choose in their own room?"
As he spoke, the young man strode up and down. Whenever his back was turned, the agent winked at me and made grimaces denoting great desperation. After a pause, he said: "You gentlemen owe us four months' rent."
"Oh, you're back to that again!" the young man cried, putting his hands in his pockets, "how often must I tell you not to talk to me of this nonsense, but to Patkiewicz or Maleski? After all, it's easy enough to remember — Maleski pays for even months, February, April, June — while Patkiewicz pays for the odd, March, May, July . . ."
"But none of you ever pays!" the agent exclaimed impatiently.
"Whose fault is it if you don't come at the proper time?" the young man roared, clapping his hands together, "you've been told a hundred times to come to Maleski in even months, to Patekiewicz in odd . . ."
"What about you?"
"Me? Not at all," the young man exclaimed, threatening us, "I don't pay rent on principle. Whom am I to pay? And what for? Ha ha! Serve you right."
He began walking more rapidly about the room, laughing and scowling by turns. Finally he began whistling and looking out of the window, impudently turning his back to us . . . I lost my temper: "Allow me to remark," I exclaimed, "that this disregard of an agreement is more than somewhat strange . . . A person supplies you with a dwelling, but you see fit not to pay for it."
"Who gives me a dwelling?" cried the young man, sitting on the window sill and swinging himself about as if he intended throwing himself down from the third floor. "I took this apartment and will stay here till they throw me out. Agreement, indeed! They make me laugh with their talk of agreements . . . If society wants me to pay for a place to live, society should pay me enough for the lessons I give to suffice for rent. It's laughable! For three hours teaching a day I get fifteen roubles a month; they take away nine for food, three for laundry and services — and what about my clothes, and fees! Yet they still want me to pay rent . . . Throw me out into the street," he said angrily, "let the dog-catcher shoot me . . . You have a right to that, but not to make comments and complain . . ."
"I fail to understand your excitement," said I, calmly.
"I have good reason to be excited," the young man replied, swinging more and more in the direction of the yard, "as society didn't kill me at birth, as it wants me to study and pass dozens of exams, it has put itself under an obligation to give me work that will ensure my survival . . . Yet it either refuses me work, or cheats me out of payment for it . . . And if society does not keep its agreement with me, why should it expect me to keep mine to it? But what's the use of talking, I don't pay rent as a matter of principle, and basta! The more so because the present owner of the house didn't build it: he didn't bake the bricks, nor make the lime, lay the walls, risk breaking his neck. He came with money, possibly stolen, and paid someone else, who had perhaps robbed another person, and on that principle he wants to make me his slave. Such reasoning makes me laugh!"
"Mr Wokulski didn't rob anyone," I said, rising, "he made his fortune by hard work and saving."
"Be quiet," the young man interrupted, "my father was a competent doctor, he worked night and day and made what you might call good pay, and he saved . . . three hundred roubles a year! As your house cost ninety thousand roubles, my father would have to live and write prescriptions for three hundred years. I don't believe the new landlord worked for three hundred years . . ."
My head began spinning with these arguments: but the young man went on, "You can turn us out, of course. Then you'll see what you've lost. All the laundry-girls, all the cooks in the house will lose their tempers, and Madame Krzeszowska will begin to torment her neighbours unchallenged, to count each visitor who calls and every spoonful of flour they use . . . By all means, throw us out! Then Miss Leokadia will start singing her scales and vocalises in a soprano voice mornings and contralto in the evenings . . . And the devil will take this house when we're the only ones to keep it in order."
We made to leave: "So you definitely will not pay the rent?" I asked.
"Perhaps you would at least start paying from next October?"
"No, sir. I have not much longer to live, so I hope to introduce at least one principle — if society wants individuals to respect agreements, then let society carry out its agreements with individuals. If I have to pay rent to anyone, then let others pay me as much for lessons to suffice for that rent. D'you understand me, sir?"
"Not entirely, sir," I replied.
"That is not surprising," said the young man, "in old age the brain withers away and is incapable of accepting new ideas."
We bowed to one another, and the agent and I went out. The young man shut the door behind us, but after a moment he ran out to the stairs and shouted: "And tell the agent to bring two policemen with him, for they will have to eject me by force!"
When the unusual young man had finally gone back to his apartment and locked the door on us in a manner which made it plain he regarded his conference with us as over, I stopped halfway down the stairs and said to the agent: "I see you have coloured windowpanes, here?"
"Oh, certainly . . ."