The inhabitants of Austrian Galicia are quiet, inoffensive people, take them as a whole. The Jews, who number a twelfth of the population, are the most intelligent, energetic, and certainly the most money-making individuals in the province, though the Poles proper, or Mazurs, are not devoid of natural parts.
In the most quiet and well-disposed neighbourhoods, occasionally the most startling atrocities are committed, occurring when least expected, and sometimes perpetrated by the very person who is least suspected.
Just sixteen years ago there happened in the circle of Tornow, in Western Galicia — the province is divided into nine circles — a circumstance which will probably furnish the grandames with a story for their firesides, during their bitter Galician winters, for many a long year…
In the circle of Tornow, in the lordship of Parkost, is a little hamlet called Polomyja, consisting of eight hovels and a Jewish tavern. The inhabitants are mostly woodcutters, hewing down the firs of the dense forest in which their village is situated, and conveying them to the nearest water, down which they are floated to the Vistula. Each tenant pays no rent for his cottage and pitch of field, but is bound to work a fixed number of days for his landlord: a practice universal in Galicia, and often productive of much discontent and injustice, as the proprietor exacts labour from his tenant on those days when the harvest has to be got in, or the land is m best condition for tillage, and just when the peasant would gladly be engaged upon his own small plot. Money is scarce in the province, and this is accordingly the only way in which the landlord can be sure of his dues.
Most of the villagers of Polomyja are miserably poor; but by cultivating a little maize, and keeping a few fowls or a pig, they scrape together sufficient to sustain life. During the summer the men collect resin from the pines, from each of which, once in twelve Years, they strip a slip of bark, leaving the resin to exude and trickle into a small earthenware jar at its roots; and, during the winter, as already stated, they fell the trees and roll them down to the river.
Polomyja is not a cheerful spot — nested among dense masses of pine, which shed a gloom over the little hamlet; yet, on a fine day, it is pleasant enough for the old women to sit at their cottage doors, scenting that matchless pine fragrance, sweeter than the balm of the Spice Islands, for there is nothing cloying in that exquisite and exhilarating odour; listening to the harp-like thrill of the breeze in the old grey tree-tops, and knitting quietly at long stockings, whilst their little grandchildren romp in the heather and tufted fern.
Towards evening, too, there is something indescribably beautiful in the firwood. The sun dives among the trees, and paints their boles with patches of luminous saffron, or falling over a level clearing, glorifies it with its orange dye, so visibly contrasting with the blue-purple shadow on the western rim of unreclaimed forest, deep and luscious as the bloom on a plum. The birds then are hastening to their nests, a ger-falcon, high overhead, is kindled with sunlight; capering and gambolling among the branches, the merry squirrel skips home for the night.
The sun goes down, but the sky is still shining with twilight. The wild cat begins to hiss and squall in the forest, the heron to flap hastily by, the stork on the top of the tavern chimney to poise itself on one leg for sleep. To-whoo! An owl begins to wake up. Hark! The woodcutters are coming home with a song.
Such is Polomyja in summer time, and much resembling it are the hamlets scattered about the forest, at intervals of a few miles; in each, the public-house being the most commodious and best-built edifice, the church, whenever there is one, not remarkable for anything but its bulbous steeple.
You would hardly believe that amidst all this poverty a beggar could have picked up any subsistence, and yet, a few years ago, Sunday after Sunday, there sat a white-bearded venerable man at the church door, asking alms.
Poor people are proverbially compassionate and liberal, so that the old man generally got a few coppers, and often some good woman bade him come into her cottage, and let him have some food.
Occasionally Swiatek — that was the beggar’s name, went his rounds selling small pinchbeck ornaments and beads; generally, however, only appealing to charity.
One Sunday, after church, a Mazur and his wife invited the old man into their hut and gave him a crust of pie and some meat. There were several children about, but a little girl, of nine or ten, attracted the old man’s attention by her artless tricks.
Swiatek felt in his pocket and produced a ring, enclosing a piece of coloured glass set over foil. This he presented to the child, who ran off delighted to show her acquisition to her companions.
“Is that little maid your daughter?” asked the beggar.
“No,” answered the house-wife, “she is an orphan; there was a widow in this place who died, leaving the child, and I have taken charge of her; one mouth more will not matter much, and the good God will bless us.”
“Ay, ay! To be sure He will; the orphans and fatherless are under His own peculiar care.”
“She’s a good little thing, and gives no trouble,” observed the woman. “You go back to Polomyja tonight, I reckon.”
“I do — ah!” exclaimed Swiatek, as the little girl ran up to him. You like the ring, is it not beautiful? I found it under a big fir to the left of the churchyard — there may be dozens there. You must turn round three times, bow to the moon, and say, ‘Zaboï!’ then look among the tree-roots till you find one.”
“Come along!” screamed the child to its comrades; “we will go and look for rings.”
“You must seek separately,” said Swiatek.
The children scampered off into the wood.
“I have done one good thing for you,” laughed the beggar, “in ridding you, for a time, of the noise of those children.”
“I am glad of a little quiet now and then,” said the woman; “the children will not let the baby sleep at times with their clatter. Are you going?”
“Yes; I must reach Polomyja to-night. I am old and very feeble, and poor” — he began to fall into his customary whine — very poor, but I thank and pray to God for you.”
Swiatek left the cottage.
That little orphan was never seen again.
The Austrian Government has, of late years, been vigorously advancing education among the lower orders, and establishing schools throughout the province.
The children were returning from class one day, and were scattered among the trees, some pursuing a field-mouse, others collecting juniper-berries, and some sauntering with their hands in their pockets, whistling.
“Where’s Peter?” asked one little boy of another who was beside him. “We three go home the same way, let us go together.”
“Peter!” shouted the lad.
“Here I am!” was the answer from among the trees; “I’ll be with you directly.”
“Oh, I see him!” said the elder boy. “There is some one talking to him.”
“Yonder, among the pines. Ah! they have gone further into the shadow, and I cannot see them any more. I wonder who was with him; a man, I think.”
The boys waited till they were tired, and then they sauntered home, determined to thrash Peter for having kept them waiting. But Peter was never seen again.
Some time after this a servant-girl, belonging to a small store kept by a Russian, disappeared from a village five miles from Polomyja. She had been sent with a parcel of grocery to a cottage at no very great distance, but lying apart from the main cluster of hovels, and surrounded by trees.
The day closed in, and her master waited her return anxiously, but as several hours elapsed without any sign of her, he — assisted by the neighbours — went in search of her.
A slight powdering of snow covered the ground, and her footsteps could be traced at intervals where she had diverged from the beaten track. In that part of the road where the trees were thickest, there were marks of two pair of feet leaving the path; but owing to the density of the trees at that spot and to the slightness of the fall of snow, which did not reach the soil, where shaded by the pines, the footprints were immediately lost. By the following morning a heavy fall had obliterated any further traces which day-light might have discovered.
The servant-girl also was never seen again.
During the winter of 1849 the wolves were supposed to have been particularly ravenous, for thus alone did people account for the mysterious disappearances of children.
A little boy had been sent to a fountain to fetch water; the pitcher was found standing by the well, but the boy had vanished. The villagers turned out, and those wolves which could be found were despatched.
We have already introduced our readers to Polomyja, although the occurrences above related did not take place among those eight hovels, but in neighbouring villages. The reason for our having given a more detailed account of this cluster of houses–rude cabins they were — will now become apparent.
In May, 1849, the innkeeper of Polomyja missed a couple of ducks, and his suspicions fell upon the beggar who lived there, and whom he held in no esteem, as he himself was a hard-working industrious man, whilst Swiatek maintained himself, his wife, and children by mendicity, although possessed of sufficient arable land to yield an excellent crop of maize, and produce vegetables, if tilled with ordinary care.
As the publican approached the cottage a fragrant whiff of roast greeted his nostrils.
“I’ll catch the fellow in the act,” said the innkeeper to himself, stealing up to the door, and taking good care not to be observed.
As he threw open the door, he saw the mendicant hurriedly shuffle something under his feet, and conceal it beneath his long clothes. The publican was on him in an instant, had him by the throat, charged him with theft, and dragged him from his seat. Judge of his sickening horror when from beneath the pauper’s clothes rolled forth the head of a girl about the age of fourteen or fifteen years, carefully separated from the trunk.
In a short while the neighbours came up. The venerable Swiatek was locked up, along with his wife, his daughter — a girl of sixteen — and a son, aged five.
The hut was thoroughly examined, and the mutilated remains of the poor girl discovered. In a vat were found the legs and thighs, partly raw, partly stewed or roasted. In a chest were the heart, liver, and entrails, all prepared and cleaned, as neatly as though done by a skilful butcher; and, finally, under the oven was a bowl full of fresh blood. On his way to the magistrate of the district, the wretched man flung himself repeatedly on the ground, struggled with his guards, and endeavoured to suffocate himself by gulping clown clods of earth and stones, but was prevented by his conductors.
When taken before the Protokoll at Dabkow, he stated that he had already killed and — assisted by his family — eaten six persons: his children, however, asserted most positively that the number was much greater than he had represented, and their testimony is borne out by the fact, that the remains of fourteen different caps and suits of clothes, male as well as female, were found in his house.
The origin of this horrible and depraved taste was as follows, according to Swiatek’s own confession:
In 1846, three years previous, a Jewish tavern in the neighbourhood had been burned down, and the host had himself perished in the flames. Swiatek, whilst examining the ruins, had found the half-roasted corpse of the publican among the charred rafters of the house. At that time the old man was craving with hunger, having been destitute of food for some time. The scent and the sight of the roasted flesh inspired him with an uncontrollable desire to taste of it. He tore off a portion of the carcase and satiated his hunger upon it, and at the same time he conceived such a liking for it, that he could feel no rest till he had tasted again. His second victim was the orphan above alluded to; since then — that is, during the period of no less than three years — he had frequently subsisted in the same manner, and had actually grown sleek and fat upon his frightful meals.
The excitement roused by the discovery of these atrocities was intense; several poor mothers who had bewailed the loss of their little ones, felt their wounds reopened agonisingly. Popular indignation rose to the highest pitch: there was some fear lest the criminal should be torn in pieces himself by the enraged people, as soon as he was brought to trial: but he saved the necessity of precautions being taken to ensure his safety, for, on the first night of his confinement, he hanged himself from the bars of the prison-window.