As you may know, I have been revelling in my recent discovery of the second greatest historical novelist of all time , Henryk Sienkiewicz. He has many of the qualities I admire in my favourite author Patrick O’Brian: an easy, unforced poetic style, historical accuracy that is detailed without being tedious, deftly drawn characters that power a fast-paced story set in a backdrop of events bigger than themselves, and action that does not try to reinvent the wheel but imaginatively places us in the minds of the protagonists. But as I read, I began to feel that there was one thing missing: that warm, friendly humour - never cutting or cynical - that O’Brian uses to illustrate the goodness of his characters as their humanity places them between a rock and a hard place. I missed that humour in the first pages, but I didn’t miss it for long because the following passage had me in tears and is worthy of the best of O’Brian.
Let us set the stage so you can ‘get it’. We have our young, stubborn, brave and upright knightly hero, Zbyszko. We have his old uncle, Macko, the last lord of his great family who has no sons to carry on the family name. That name hangs by a thread in the form of his nephew Zbyszko who could be killed in the war at any moment thus snuffing out the great lineage of the Gradys in an instant. He therefore lives to see Zbyszko married so he can produce heirs. There exists the perfect match for Zbyszko in a local girl, Jagienka, a childhood sweetheart, a beautiful, brave and resourceful girl with a good dowry of neighbouring lands and who loves Zbyszko. And we have the abbot, a very powerful and masterful man, who loves Jagienka like a father and shares Macko’s earnest desire to see her married to his nephew. The only problem to this match made in heaven is that Zbyszko has sworn a knightly vow to serve and marry another girl called Danusia. The abbot knows of this and has taunted and manipulated Zbyszko (he thinks) into challenging and fighting two local suitors of Jagienka, Cztan and Wilk.
Macko and Zbyszko are with the abbot, who is speaking of the merits of Jagienka:
"The girl is perfectly right to be particular in her choice, because she is pretty, rich and of good family! Of what account are Cztan or Wilk, when the son of a ‘wojewoda’ (a prince or duke) would not be too good for her! But if somebody, as myself for instance, spoke in favor of any particular one, then she would marry him, because she loves me and knows that I will advise her well."
"The one whom you advise her to marry, will be very lucky," said Macko.
But the abbot turned to Zbyszko:
"What do you say to this?"
"Well, I think the same as my uncle does."
The face of the abbot became still more serene; he struck Zbyszko's shoulder with his hand so hard that the blow resounded in the chamber, and asked:
"Why did you not let Cztan or Wilk approach Jagienka at church?"
"Because I did not want them to think that I was afraid of them, and I did not want you to think so."
"But you gave the holy water to her."
"Yes, I did."
The abbot gave him another blow.
"Then, take her!"
"Take her!" exclaimed Macko, like an echo.
At this Zbyszko gathered up his hair, put it in the net, and answered quietly:
"How can I take her, when before the altar in Tyniec, I made a vow to Danusia Jurandowna?"
"You made a vow about the peacock's tufts, and you must get them, but take Jagienka immediately."
"No," answered Zbyszko; "afterward when Danusia covered me with her veil, I promised that I would marry her."
The blood began to rush to the abbot's face; his ears turned blue, and his eyes bulged; he approached Zbyszko and said, in a voice muffled with anger:
"Your vows are the chaff and I am the wind; understand! Ot!"
And he blew on Zbyszko's head so powerfully, that the net fell off and the hair was scattered on his shoulders. Then Zbyszko frowned, and looking into the abbot's eyes, he said:
"In my vows is my honor, and over my honor, I alone am the guardian!"
At this, the abbot not being accustomed to opposition, lost his breath to such a degree, that for a time he could not speak. There was an ill-omened silence, which finally was broken by Macko:
"Zbyszku!" exclaimed he, "come to your wits again! What is the matter with you?"
Meanwhile the abbot raised his hand and pointing toward the youth, began to shout:
"What is the matter with him? I know what is the matter; he has not the heart of a nobleman, nor of a knight, but of a hare! That is the matter with him; he is afraid of Cztan and Wilk!"
But Zbyszko, who had remained cool and calm, carelessly shrugged his shoulders and answered:
"Owa! I broke their heads when I was in Krzesnia."
"For heaven's sake!" exclaimed Macko.
The abbot stared for a while at Zbyszko. Anger was struggling with admiration in him, and his reason told him that from that fight, he might derive some benefit for his plans.
Therefore having become cooler, he shouted to Zbyszko:
"Why didn't you tell us that before?"
"Because I was ashamed. I thought they would challenge me, as it is customary for knights to do, to fight on horseback or on foot; but they are bandits, not knights. Wilk first took a board from the table, Cztan seized another and they both rushed against me! What could I do? I seized a bench; well--you know!"
"Are they still alive?" asked Macko.
"Yes, they are alive, but they were hurt. They breathed when I left."
The abbot, rubbing his forehead, listened; then he suddenly jumped from the chest, on which he had seated himself to be more comfortable and to think the matter over, and exclaimed:
"Wait! I want to tell you something!"
"What?" asked Zbyszko.
"If you fought for Jagienka and injured them for her sake, then you are really her knight, not Danusia's; and you must take Jagienka."
Having said this, he put his hands on his hips and looked at Zbyszko triumphantly; but Zbyszko smiled and said:
"Hej! I knew very well why you wanted me to fight with them; but you have not succeeded in your plans."
"Because I challenged them to deny that Danusia Jurandowna is the prettiest and the most virtuous girl in the world; they took Jagienka's part, and that is why there was a fight."
Having heard this, the abbot stood amazed, and only the frequent movement of his eyes indicated that he was still alive. Finally he turned, opened the door with his foot, and rushed into the other room; there he seized the curved stick from the pilgrim's hands and began to strike the ‘shpilmen’ with it, roaring like a wounded urus.
"To horse, you rascals! To horse, you dog-faiths! I will not put my foot in this house again! To horse, he who believes in God, to horse!"
Then he opened the outer door and went into the court-yard, followed by the frightened seminarists. They rushed to the stable and began to saddle the horses. In vain Macko followed the abbot, and entreated him to remain; swore that it was not his fault. The abbot cursed the house, the people and the fields; when they brought him a horse, he jumped in the saddle without touching the stirrups and galloped away looking, with his large sleeves filled by the wind, like an enormous red bird. The seminarists rushed after him, like a herd following its leader.
Macko stood looking after them for some time; but when they disappeared in the forest, he returned slowly to the room and said to Zbyszko, shaking his head sadly:
"See what you have done?"