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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Henryk Sienkiewicz (1846–1916)

On the Edge of the Abyss

From “The Third”

THE RENT of the studio which Swiatecki and I occupied in common had not been paid; first, because our resources did not amount to five rubles, and, secondly, because we had a sincere aversion to the paying of rent. We painters are often called spendthrifts, and yet I would rather spend the money for wine than squander it on a landlord. Our landlord, by the way, was by no means a bad-natured fellow, and, what is more, we had our own methods of dealing with him. Whenever he came up to dun us, which usually happened rather early in the morning, Swiatecki would half arise from his bed—a sack of straw covered by some Turkish drapery that had seen service in the background of many a painting—and say in a sepulchral voice, “Ah, I am glad to see you, for I dreamed that you were dead.” The landlord, who was superstitious, and evidently afraid of death, would become confused. Swiatecki would throw himself backward, stretch out his legs, fold his hands upon his breast, and say, “This is the way I saw you lying. You had on white gloves with very long fingers, and patent-leather boots. Your appearance had not changed much.” And then he was wont to add, “Such dreams do not always come true.” The “not always” drove our landlord to despair. The affair ended in his growing angry, slamming the doors behind him, and rattling down the stairs cursing. But, good fellow that he was, he could never make up his mind to send us the sheriff. To be sure, there was not much that the law could have attached, and no doubt our landlord realized that if he were to let the studio and kitchen to other artists, he would fare no better, and perhaps worse.

But our means of pacifying him lost their efficacy in the course of time. The landlord accustomed himself to the idea of death. Swiatecki was just about to paint three pictures in the manner of Wuertz—Death, Burial, Awakening—and of course the landlord was to figure in all three. Such ghastly subjects were Swiatecki’s specialty. In his own words, he painted large, small, and medium cadavers. It was probably due to this choice of subject that no one would buy his pictures, though he had talent. He had just sent two of his large cadavers to the Paris Salon exhibition, whither I had sent my Jews Beside the Vistula, which the catalogue had changed to Jews by the Waters of Babylon, and we were both impatient for the decision of the jury. Of course, Swiatecki had made up his mind beforehand that everything would turn out as badly as it possibly could. Either, he declared, the judges would prove to be complete idiots, incapable of recognizing our merits, or we should come to see that we had been complete idiots to send pictures so badly done that to distinguish them would be idiocy still more complete.

How this fellow embittered my life in the two years during which we lived together is quite beyond description. His ambition was to appear in the guise of a moral cadaver. Thus he pretended to be a drunkard, which was by no means the actual case. He would drink off two or three brandies and look round to ascertain if we had seen him. Was he not sure if we had, he would call the attention of one of us to his feat, and ask in a sepulchral voice:

“Am I not far gone?”

We would tell him not to be silly.

Then his wrath would break out, for nothing enraged him more than to have his moral downfall doubted.

As a matter of fact, he was a thoroughly fine fellow.

Once, by the lakes of the Austrian Alps, we lost our way. Night was approaching, and there was some danger of one breaking one’s neck. So Swiatecki said:

“Listen, Wladeck: you have more talent than I. It would be a pity if you were killed; so let me go first. If I fall down, you stay quietly here until to-morrow, and then you will find some way out.”

“On the contrary,” I replied, “I will go first, because my eyes are better than yours.”

“Even if I don’t break my neck to-day,” said Swiatecki, “I shall do so some other time, anyhow. I don’t care a straw whether it’s sooner or later.”

We discussed the matter and argued at length. In the meantime it grew pitch dark. At last we determine to draw lots. Swiatecki pulls the shorter straw, and goes first. We move slowly along the narrow mountain path. The path becomes narrower and narrower. To the right and left of it yawn chasms, which in all probability are very deep. And still narrower grows the path, now a mere razor ridge, from which pieces crumble off continually.

“I’m going to creep on all fours; it’s all I can do now,” says Swiatecki.

We soon see that no other method of progress is possible. The ridge is now no broader than the back of a horse. Swiatecki sits down astride in front, I behind him. We support ourselves with our hands on the rock before us, and thus lift ourselves along bit by bit, to the great damage of our clothes.

In a little while I hear Swiatecki’s voice:

“Wladeck, we have got to the end of the ridge!”

“And what comes next?”

“An abyss, apparently.”

“Take a stone and throw it down. We may judge of the depth by its sound.”

In the darkness I hear my companion hunt for a loose piece of rock.

“Now listen! I am going to throw it.”

We strain our ears. Not a sound!

“Did you hear anything?”

“It must be more than a hundred fathoms deep.”

“Throw another.”

Swiatecki takes a larger fragment and throws it.

Not a sound!

“Is the place bottomless?” cries Swiatecki.

“There’s no help for it. We’ll have to stay here without budging till morning.”

So there we are. My friend throws a few more stones, with equally unsatisfactory result. One hour passes; another. I hear Swiatecki’s voice:

“Wladeck, don’t go to sleep and fall off. Haven’t you a cigarette?”

I have a cigarette, it appears, but not a single match. Despair!

A drizzling rain begins to fall about an hour after midnight. All about us darkness impenetrable. I realize that we who live in the midst of men, whether in town or country, have no conception of silence. The silence which now surrounds us makes us hear distinctly the rush of our own blood and the beating of our own hearts.

At first the situation is not without interest—to sit astride of a mountain ridge at night, with abysses on every side. But presently it grows cold, and Swiatecki begins to philosophize:

“What is life? Loathsome through and through. Art, forsooth—what is art? A mere aping of nature, and, furthermore, it leads to dishonesty. I have seen the Salon twice. There hang canvases without number. And what are they there for? Mere striving to satisfy possible purchasers. Anarchy! True art does not exist at all. Nature alone exists, but it is the question whether nature is not equally worthless at bottom. The best thing one could do would be to jump down and end this misery. And I would, if I had some brandy. But as I have sworn not to die sober, and as I have no brandy, I can’t jump.”

As a rule, I am accustomed to Swiatecki’s talk, and it has very little influence on me. But here in the darkness and silence, at the edge of an abyss, his words make me gloomier still. Fortunately, he soon ends his discourse.

And then it seems to me that dawn is slowly coming. Gradually I begin to see dimly the outlines of my hands grasping the ridge and the outlines of Swiatecki’s shoulders, like a black silhouette upon a slightly lighter background. And this background grows paler. An exquisite, pale-gray hue spreads among the cliffs, as if a silver fluid had been poured over them. Black has turned to gray, and gray to pearl.

It grows lighter and lighter.

I try to catch and hold in memory the wonderful blending and changing of colors, when a loud cry from my colleague interrupts me:

“Oh, what asses we are!”

His form disappears from before my eyes.

“Swiatecki, what are you doing?”

“Don’t bawl; come here.”

I lean forward, and what do I see? I am sitting on a narrow rock that stands about a yard above a meadow. Upon the meadow the moss is so close and deep that it had deadened the sound of the falling stones. Had we slipped down, we should have been at home long ago, and not have sat all through the cold night in the open air.