Krzystoff Papka refused to weep. The door clanged shut behind him and the heavy tumblers of the lock fell into place. Dampness and gloom pressed in on the boy and sent a shiver through his body. A single iron cot covered with a thin blanket stood against the stone wall of the bare room, one of many such rooms in the cellar of the sprawling Pauline monastery in Konstantin. Faint rays of sunlight filtered through the bars of a small window high up on the opposite wall. He sighed deeply and sank down on the cot.
Instantly, he cried out in pain as the raw welts on his back touched the cold stone of the wall. Groaning softly, he stretched himself on his side and closed his eyes. The image of Brother Pyotr holding the birch switch flashed through his mind. There had been a sadistic look on the big monk’s face as he had administered the ten lashes. No one else had been there to hear the pitiful screams of the boy and perhaps take pity on him. Krzystoff pulled the blanket over his shoulders and fell into a troubled sleep.
The sounds of early morning activity in the courtyard pulled Krzystoff out of his sleep. Through half closed eyes he watched the countless dust particles dancing in the thick rays of cool light that streamed down from the little window.
From the distance came the faint echoes of approaching footsteps. The footsteps came to a stop outside the room. A key turned in the lock, and the door squeaked open. An old monk with a sparse fringe of short white hairs around his shaven head stood in the doorway. Krzystoff jumped to his feet ignoring the dull throb from his back.
“Good morning, Father Kleofas,” he stammered.
“Good morning, Krzystoff,” said the Abbot of Konstantin, a sharp edge to his voice. “Brother Pavel told me about your behavior yesterday. It was disgraceful. What do you have to say for yourself?”
“I’m sorry, Father.”
“That is just not good enough, Krzystoff. You are getting out of hand. We cannot tolerate such behavior. Do you think I have nothing better to do with my morning than lecture rebellious novices?”
“I beg your forgiveness, Father,” mumbled the boy. “I have great respect for you. It never entered my mind that you would be inconvenienced.”
The stern look on the old abbot’s face softened. He walked over to the cot and sat down, indicating that Krzystoff sit down next to him. The boy sat on the edge of the cot, his hands folded in his lap, his eyes downcast.
“Krzystoff, Krzystoff,” said the abbot in a gentle voice. “What are we going to do with you?”
The question was rhetorical, and Krzystoff remained silent.
“You were always a rather wild lad, Krzystoff, my son. Heaven knows we have tried to be good to you. We took you in as a young orphan, the child of a simple peasant. We tried to be both father and mother to you. We fed and clothed you. We taught you how to read and write, something your parents could never have given you. But most of all, we let you train for the priesthood. Here you are, a lad of only fourteen and already you have a bright future ahead of you. And who knows how far a clever lad like you can advance? There are no limits to what you can accomplish. You might even become an abbot someday, or perhaps a bishop. Doesn’t that mean anything to you?”
Krzystoff hung his head. He did not speak.
“Would you prefer,” continued the abbot, “that we turn you over to the lord on whose lands your father toiled for so many years as a serf?”
Tears streamed freely down the boy’s cheeks. He shook his head.
“Well, what do you expect us to do? We have more trouble with you than with any of the other novices. Either you are skipping chapel or stealing food from the kitchen or putting frogs into Brother Pavel’s bed. Not to mention the preposterous stories you tell during confession. How many times have you been reprimanded, Krzystoff? How many times? I cannot even begin to count them. But lately, you have become insufferable. And now this! This time, Krzystoff, you have gone too far. It is one thing when you do these things yourself. It is quite another when you draw others into your sinful ways. That is something we cannot tolerate.”
He fixed Krzystoff with a stern look, but the boy kept his eyes averted, not daring to look up. The abbot continued.
“Brother Pavel tells me that he found you in the storeroom behind the kitchen playing chess with Gregor Tal and Gregor Mieczek when you were supposed to be at mass. Who was to blame for this outrage?”
“The blame is mine,” whispered Krzystoff. “It was my idea. I talked the others into it.”
“I am glad to hear you admit your guilt, Krzystoff,” said the abbot. “Of course, we knew all along that you were to blame. Gregor Tal and Gregor Mieczek are not troublemakers. They have been punished as well, but your sin is much greater. Only you received the lashes. Did the lashes help you see the error of your ways and repent?”
“Yes, Father, but—”
“What were you going to say, Krzystoff?”
The boy shook his head.
“Tell me, my son,” said the abbot kindly.
“I do not want to speak ill of another.”
“Let me be the judge. Tell me.”
“There was no compassion in Brother Pyotr’s eyes when he gave me the lashes. None at all.”
The abbot patted Krzystoff on the head.
“Do not let that trouble you, my son. Think of Brother Pyotr as my hand. It was I who gave you those lashes, not Brother Pyotr. Look into my eyes, Krzystoff. Do you see compassion in my eyes?”
Krzystoff looked up at the elderly abbot’s face and slowly nodded his head.
“Come, Krzystoff. I see that you have truly repented. Perhaps there is still some hope for you. Wash yourself and get dressed. My good friend Father Zbigniew Mzlateslavski is honoring us with a visit today. I want all the novices to be on their best behavior.”
The abbot stood up, and the boy followed suit. The old man put his arm around the boy’s shoulders, and together they left the room.
All the boys were busy putting the rectory in order under the watchful eye of Brother Pavel when Krzystoff returned. They cast furtive glances at him as he peeled the bloodstained shirt from his back, but no one dared approach him. By the time he had cleaned himself up and dressed Brother Pavel and the others had already gone down to breakfast.
Krzystoff took a chunk of bread from the sideboard near the door of the crowded dining hall and looked about for a place to sit. Gregor Mieczek, near whom he usually sat, was staring studiously at the steam rising from his mug of tea. Krzystoff was looking about for someplace else to sit when he noticed Gregor Tal beckoning to him. Gratefully, he slipped into the seat next to Gregor Tal and busied himself with his food.
“Thanks, Tal,” he murmured under his breath. “I appreciate it.”
“Well, you have to sit somewhere, Papka. It might as well be next to me.”
“Everyone is looking at me like I have some kind of dreadful disease.”
“Don’t let it bother you, Papka. Today you’re poison, but tomorrow you’ll be just another novice.”
“I’m not sure about that, Tal. I’m sorry I got you into trouble.”
“It’s not your fault, Krzystoff. I didn’t have to go if I didn’t want to.”
“Well, that’s not what Father Kleofas thinks. He thinks I drew you and Mieczek into my sinful ways.”
Gregor Tal’s eyes widened. “When did you speak to Father Kleofas?”
“He came down to see me in the cellar very early this morning.”
Gregor Tal whistled softly.
“You had better watch your step, Papka.”
“I know, Tal. I’ll be careful.”
“Tell me, Papka. Did it hurt?”
Krzystoff nodded and took a bite of his bread.
“Well, at least it was a good game of chess,” said Gregor Tal. “I would have won, you know.”
“No, you wouldn’t have,” said Krzystoff, a small smile breaking across his face. “Two more moves and I would have had your queen trapped with my knights.”
“We’ll never know.”
“We certainly will. I remember the board position. We’ll just put it back the way it was and continue the game.”
“I think we should stay away from chess for a while, Papka. Don’t you? At least until things quiet down.”
“Yes, I suppose you’re right.”
“Do you want to get some fresh air? There is less than half hour left until we have to go to the library for our mathematics lessons.”
They finished their breakfast quickly and went out into the courtyard. A brilliant blue sky stretched out over the high monastery walls. Soft breezes ruffled their hair as they sat down on a bench. Krzystoff filled his lungs with the crystal air and exhaled slowly.
“Ah, that feels good,” he said. “Especially after a night in the cellar. It is so damp down there. I actually felt like I was breathing water.”
“I can imagine. You know, they must have been very angry at you. They never did this to you before.”
“Father Kleofas said that getting you and Mieczek involved was going too far. He hinted that if it happened again I might get sent back to be a serf for my father’s lord.”
“If you push him too far, Papka, he might just do it.”
“I know, Tal. And don’t think I’m not frightened. Perhaps we should not be friends any longer. I would not want to drag you down along with me.”
“Don’t worry. They will not have any problems with me. I learned my lesson. I also have nowhere to go. I’ve spent all my life in the convent in Pszelitz, near where I was born, and here in Konstantin. Besides, I like it here. I have what to eat and where to sleep. Brother Feliks teaches us mathematics and astronomy, and he lets me use the library whenever I want to. Things could be worse. I wouldn’t mind skipping chapel, either, but it’s the price I have to pay.”
“Well, it’s too high a price for me.”
Gregor Tal threw Krzystoff a puzzled look.
“What’s gotten into you, Papka? I mean you were always a free spirit, but lately, it seems as if something is gnawing at you. What is it?”
“It’s nothing, Tal. Nothing at all.” He stood up. “We have to be going already. I wouldn’t want to make us late for our mathematics lessons.”
“Listen, Krzystoff, my friend. Whatever it is, you can tell me whenever you’re ready. We’ve known each other for a long time. You know you can trust me, don’t you?”
Krzystoff looked at his friend for a long moment. Then he nodded and walked away.
It was late afternoon when the huge gates of the monastery closed behind Zbigniew Mzlateslavski’s carriage. The abbot was waiting to greet his visitor. After embracing as old friends who had not seen each other in a long time, they immediately retired to the seclusion and privacy of the abbot’s private office in the rectory.
“Make yourself comfortable, Father Zbigniew,” said the abbot, showing his visitor to a chair. “I have ordered some refreshments sent up for you. You must be exhausted after your long journey.”
“Actually, I am not coming directly from Pulichev, Father Kleofas,” said Mzlateslavski. “I stopped over in Jaroslavl for a few days. I only left there this morning. But the refreshments are certainly welcome.”
“Unfortunately, my duties keep me here most of the time. I hardly ever get into Jaroslavl, let alone Warsaw or Krakow. How are things in Jaroslavl?”
“The same as in the other big cities. The troubles in Germany are affecting all of Poland. One feels the tension everywhere. True, the Bohemian revolt of 1618 was crushed, but believe me, we are far from the end of this thing.”
“What are you saying, Father Zbigniew? Six relatively quiet years have passed since then. The Lutherans and Calvinists have been crushed. Austria and Spain will do everything in their power to keep the Catholic Church strong. Poland will not be touched by the Protestant scourge.”
“I hope you are right, Father Kleofas, but I suspect we have not seen the end of it yet. There is much unrest in Germany, especially in the north where the princes have been frightened by the new power of the Church. Rumor has it that King Christian IV of Denmark, a staunch Lutheran, is planning an invasion of Germany and that the English will pay for his campaign. If so, we will be dragged into a war that will last many years and might engulf all of Europe.”
“There are always wild rumors in difficult times, Father Zbigniew. I place no stock in the talk of idle people.”
“I am afraid these rumors are not so wild, Father Kleofas,” said Mzlateslavski. “Jaroslavl is full of refugees from Germany, most of them Jews.”
“Well, if there will indeed be a war in Germany the Jews certainly have the most to fear,” said the abbot with a malicious glint in his eyes. “But why must they all come to Poland? Why can’t they find a place elsewhere?”
“It is the fault of our kings who have always favored the Jews. From Zigismund Jagiello to Zigismund August to Stefan Bathory they have always shown favor to the Jews. Jews mean commerce, and our good kings are willing to tolerate heresy if it brings them money.”
“Must I remind you, Father Zbigniew, that King Stefan died in 1587, thirty-seven years ago? Since then, King Zigismund III has tried to set things right. He has given much power to the Jesuits. Believe me, those Jesuits can keep the Jews in their place.”
“That is true. King Zigismund is a true champion of the Church, but it will take a long time for the Jews to come to the realization that they are not welcome in Poland. Besides, even this good king granted the Jews of Krakow permission to buy new lands and houses.”
“But that was back in 1608. I am sure he would not do so today.”
There was a sharp knock on the door and Brother Pyotr entered. He was carrying a tray laden with corn cakes and a decanter of wine. He placed the tray on the table in front of Mzlateslavski.
“Thank you, Brother Pyotr,” said Mzlateslavski. “It is nice to see you again.”
Brother Pyotr nodded sullenly and left without saying a word. Mzlateslavski shook his head in bafflement.
“That man is an imbecile, Father Kleofas. Why do you keep him around?”
The abbot smiled.
“He has his uses, Father Zbigniew. Please eat something. You must be famished. We will talk more later, and I am sure you are eager to see the boys.”
“I certainly am,” said Mzlateslavski and poured himself a glass of wine. “By the way, Father Kleofas, how is Krzystoff Papka doing? Is he still inclined to his boyish pranks?”
The abbot’s face darkened.
“You have touched a sore point, Father Zbigniew,” he said. “Only yesterday he skipped chapel, taking two other boys along with him. We found them playing chess in the storeroom near the kitchen. Krzystoff was punished severely.”
“This is indeed serious,” said Mzlateslavski, the glass of wine frozen in midair. “Who were the other two?”
“Gregor Mieczek and Gregor Tal.”
“I am sorry to hear that. Those two are good boys. Two of our best.”
“They were also punished, although not as severely. I don’t think we shall have any more trouble with them. But Krzystoff is a problem.”
Mzlateslavski stood up and began pacing back and forth. He stopped at the window and looked out. The sun had already sunk behind the high walls of the monastery, leaving a red smear across the evening sky. The courtyard was deserted. He sighed and returned to his chair.
“I beg you to patient with Krzystoff, Father Kleofas,” he said wearily. “He is a bright boy, and I sincerely believe he has a future in the Church. The Church has many enemies. We cannot afford to give up on a boy of his talents.”
“We have been very patient with him, Father Zbigniew, but we cannot let him become a bad influence on the others. That will be a greater loss.”
“I know, Father Kleofas. Your patience has been truly remarkable. Krzystoff is a spirited lad. It must be very hard for him never to go beyond the walls of the monastery, large as it is. He must learn to find freedom in faith and knowledge. It will happen in time.”
The abbot shrugged.
“I hope it happens soon,” he said. “Meanwhile, your food is getting cold. I should not have mentioned anything until you had eaten. I beg our forgiveness. I am a poor host.”
“Not at all. Not at all. It was I who asked the question.”
He took a sip of wine and reached for a corn cake. “This wine is excellent,” he exclaimed.
The abbot beamed.
“We make the wine ourselves right here in the monastery,” he said. “We are very proud of it. Do you feel up to giving the boys a talk during evening meal? Perhaps we should put it off until tomorrow evening. You look tired.”
“I would much prefer to speak to them this evening. I must leave for Krakow early tomorrow morning. The Cardinal awaits me, you now. When one is doing holy work one cannot think of rest.”
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