Phrenophagos and Phrenolestes

Ludwik Sztyrmer

Photograph by Kevin Kunstadt

Mr. Pantofel Addresses the Public

-Avouez, Madame, que c'est une preface?

-Si, Monsieur, mais c'est la faute de ma Pantoufle.

By the time these pages rest in your hands, oh most reverent Public, my ashes will have long been scattered and gone, all memory of me will have vanished, and you shan't even have noticed the loss of one Pantofel, having so many others at your fingertips!

All my life I have devoted trying to understand you, oh most peculiar of creatures! Today I am old, perhaps tomorrow I shall die – and still I know no more of you than Pantofel does of what laid him in his grave. I console myself that other scholars have fared no better than I.

To know you one would need to have lived through all your years, though your origins are lost in the mists of time! One scholar claims that you existed before the deluge. Thus have you lived and grown, your strength forever rising; you know no illness, though all of your limbs be withered and gangrenous. Death flanks you like a Hajduk, sweeping the ash that flakes from your gigantic body.

How odd your might, oh reverent Public! All regard you as divine, all bow before you, all hear your words as prophecies. Your applause and your praise electrify the coldest of hearts. While crushing the Asiatic world with his phalanxes, the Macedonian was wont to stop and ponder: What would you say of him in the Athenian squares? It was for you that Curtius threw himself in the chasm, Diogenes lived in a barrel and Herostrates lit his sacrilegious firebrand. For you, oh mighty creature, they grimace on stages, galavant in circuses, scrape their fiddles in concert halls, write epic poems and novels, and generally wrack their brains to keep you amused. At one time your tastes were fairly simple, you merely cried panem et circenses; but today you vent your spleen, you froth at the mouth, nothing pleases you, you endlessly yawn and bellow: "Give me something new, for I am bored!" Oh reverent Public, do stay your temper, lest the day should come when you catch the consumption and die of your boredom!

You are the wisest of creatures under the sun, your taste is the most refined, your judgement the surest, and such is your insight that no virtue escapes you. The greatest of geniuses lays his thoughts in your hands and calmly awaits your verdict, confident that, sooner or later, you shall bestow his just measure of admiration and gratitude. But before such colossal minds, why such haste in your opinion? Oh reverent Public, you err, your judgement is sick, you distort, you profane, you jabber like a student in a fit of passion! You jeered Phaedre off the stage, but happily entertain shallow scribblers; you cried heresy in Tartuffe, yet adore today's deranged novels and dramas; you believed neither Galileo nor Columbus, while you let any old charlatan, sophist or half-wit lead you by the nose. Oh reverent Public, I dare say you are more frivolous than a child, or even a woman!

You shrugged at the suffering of Milton and Camões, you called Tasso a madman, you sneered at Rousseau's sufferings, you gather in the squares and watch with glee as the hangman lynches the criminal, you thrill to the tale of Alcybiades's dog and not to the death of Socrates, to the tale of the ass's shadow and not to Demonestes's fiery philippic, you are as cold as the mind of an egoist, you have no heart, oh reverent Public, only eyes and ears, and in your womb is bottomless cup of curiosity!

I once watched with astonishment as the immortal violinist was greeted with a thousand cries of adoration, regaled by stormy passion and applause, and he stood before you, oh reverent Public, cold as marble, his expression bland – or rather contemptuous – and with neither a gaze, nor a twitch of the hand, nor the slightest gesture did he respond to your convulsive applause, while any other would have bowed and scraped! When I saw this as a young man, I could not fathom his reserve; today I think that if Pantofel could play the violin, he would behave no differently. And now, reverent Public, I bid adieu! I have left you a novel. Should it bore you, don't resent me, simply discard it, much like I – bored to the marrow from having spent all my life with you – will soon discard you, and without a hint of resentment.

How I Ended up at the Brothers Hospitallers

I was drinking a morning coffee when my accountant brought me a stub and the last part of the contractual payment. "And so," I thought, combing my crop of hair, "my work has finally been published, instantaneously bought up, and reviewed by enlightened critics; my long years of research, my toils, have brought me more success and money than might reasonably be expected in our day and age. Perhaps if it was a novel, or an epic poem, a drama or a tale of adventure! . . . But a book in quatro, smelling, as they say, of the lamp, full of quotes from books the librarians have long since fed to the mice – this, surely, is a riddle!" I unwrapped a roll of ducats I'd received, piled them into a column on the tabletop, and feasted my eyes. But please don't think me greedy or miserly, not I! Believe me, this metal that could acquire everything on earth never occupied my thoughts so long as I was clothed and fed. And as I stared at the gold, at that moment, I paid not the slightest heed to its value, I was thinking about something quite different, something I have always placed above wealth. It seemed to me (and what doesn't seem true to a self-satisfied man) that this column on the table was a monument my adoring countrymen had made to me in the most beautiful square in Warsaw! Such fancies! Just imagine the joy of a man to whom a column of authentic Dutch gold has been erected ad legem imperii! . . . In my rapture I saw all of Warsaw standing before the statue and praising my immortal name. I leapt onto a chair to address a speech to the nation from that tribunal, but such was the fervor of my gratitude that I caught my ankle and flipped off, chair and all, overturning the table, and with it the golden column, whose ducats flew to the floor! . . .

You will doubtless assume that, like the philosopher, I told myself: sic transit gloria mundi and quit my foolery, but now you will have guessed wrong. I would surely have met your expectations if the gold had fallen silently, onto a soft object of some sort, my grandmother's feather comforter for example, and then the whole drama would have come to abruptly drawn to a close. But because no feather comforter lay about the table, the ducats fell upon the hard floorboards, and each in due time rang out in a pure, sonorous, harmonious voice, most of them chanting in chorus: "Praise thee, Wincenty!" And the others in turn, further and further from the table, cried the same refrain, until at last the final ducat wound up under the bed, whence it could still be heard to sing: "Praise thee, Wincenty!" before resting flat on its side.

Drunk with fame, beside myself with joy, I snatched up my hat and cane and ran out into the street, hardly wondering where I might go, with an overpowering need to share my good fortune. I walked faster, as if running to find a priest for my ailing mother. People stepped aside for me, some indifferently, others with a smile, whom I repaid with a polite bow, as I was once told that a smile betokens a well-wisher. And thusly I dashed down a number of streets, until finally, pulling myself together, my strength ebbing, like a bloodhound on the trail, I stood there on the sidewalk and asked myself: Where am I going? My mind ran through all my acquaintances and I found I had no desire to see any of them, for they were too firmly fixated on their own minds to believe in that of another, they praised nothing in the world save themselves, and would no doubt have mocked me if they saw me so intoxicated with fame. I thus stood there on the street, sunk in a daze, one hand tugging at my earlobe.

"What troubles your mind, sir?" a gentlemen asked as he happened to pass.

"I was wondering where to go," I responded automatically.

"Ha, ha, ha! So go to the Brothers Hospitallers," the stranger said, pointing me the way to the madhouse. "I wish you a comfortable cell!"

"Right you are!" I said to myself. "Off the Hospitallers! A place every scholar ought to visit, if only to shake his faith in the power of his own mind. At least there they shan't mock me, drag me into disputes or bore me with their boasts." And so off I went to the madhouse.

The Marshal

When I had received the requisite permission to visit the cells of those unfortunate mental castaways, the custodian led me to a long corridor lined on either side with their residences; but we had only taken a few steps before my guide stopped me and said: "Do you see that gentleman approaching us? He'll be relieving me – just walk on a bit further, and he'll show you everything."

"Is he a companion of yours?" I asked indifferently.

"Oh, no!" replied the custodian with an off-kilter sort of smile, "But rest assured, he knows the stories of all the madmen better than I, he's always tending to them, he follows their every facial twitch, and whatever he doesn't hear from them or us he fills in with his own conjectures and whims. Take my word, he'll satisfy you better than I."

"And so he's a madman, then?" I cried with a shudder of dread, but the custodian was already out of earshot.

Meanwhile, the stranger was approaching with a slow, lugubrious step. This was a young, squat, obese, ruddy fellow with long hair and a face that lit up with an odd smile; in one hand he held a scrap of paper and a pencil, and in the other a hat.

"I presume you want to see the unfortunates?" the stranger asked in a distinguished tone, bowing pleasantly.

"Quite so," I replied, "but with whom do I have the honor?"

"I?" cried the stranger, as if perplexed by the question, "I? No one, honestly, do forgive me, but I have no title to speak of. Just yesterday I was a baron, but today I am merely the marshal of the mighty Phrenophagos, under whose merciful protection I can write the novel I've promised Miss Paulina."

"Ah, my good Marshal!" I rejoined, "So you are a man of letters – very pleased indeed to make your acquaintance."

"Oh no, I'm afraid you've got it all backwards, my good sir!" said the little man, his voice both demented and ironic. "Truly, beg your pardon, but I'm no man of letters at all! A rotten business, literature! You have to deal with printers, who drive the poor to starvation and the rich to distraction, with the critics, who think that every author sells his good name along with his book, and with the educated rabble, who you'll hear shout 'How are you, chum?' from a mile away. You've got to read your work in the salons to catatonic women, spruced dandies and grave gentlemen playing whist; you must hear out their advice, opinions, caprices, delusions, malicious epigrams and shallow conceits; and finally, you are bound to trust each of your acquaintances that, if only he desired, he could have written your book a hundred times, a thousand times, a million times better than you, though indeed you might have pored half your life over it. And in spite of all this consideration on your part, people read the first critic to come along and take you for a scribbler, a plagiarist, a godless heathen, in short, a base human being! Oh no, kind sir, I truly am no man of letters, I do beg your pardon, God protect me from that! I am simply the marshal of the mighty Phrenophagos."

"Well then," I said, "at least tell me: Who is this Phrenophagos you serve?"

"Oh, my dear friend!" said the Marshal in a fluster, "Have you never heard of the mighty Phrenophagos? In our enlightened 19th century a well-bred man knows the names of all the actresses in the Parisian theaters, of all the English cocks, horses and boxers, and you, sir, do not know the mighty Phrenophagos, whose palace lies but a few steps from your own home!" Then he sank deep into thought, and a moment later continued: "Phrenophagos has his palaces all over the world – there's Bedlam in London, half of Bicêtre and half of Salpêtrière in Paris, the Brothers Hospitallers in Warsaw etc., etc. His story is very peculiar! I've never heard the like! But there's nothing to be done, we'll have to start from the beginning for the straggler, but let's go round the corner so that old Phrenophagos can't see us from his window: for if he sees us he'll surely overhear us, and if he overhears us he'll have me fired, and then I'll never be able to write that novel I promised Miss Paulina."

And so we left the main corridor and the Marshal told me the following tale in a hushed voice:

Phrenophagos and Phrenolestes

"The mighty Phrenophagos," the Marshal said, "feeds on human minds."

"Indeed!" I blurted. "Your master must often go hungry, then!"

"Why is that?" asked the astonished Marshal.

"Because in our day," I replied, "that's a costly dish, for you seldom come across the genuine article. It's not easy to get your hands on a fresh, healthy mind nowadays, and to think the mighty Phrenophagos has a taste for such delicacies! . . ."

"Ah, now I see," muttered the Marshal, turning his back to me. "But if he's bantering right from the start, just think of what's to come! Farewell, then." And he made to leave.

"Wait, wait, Marshal! What did I say? Please tell me."

"Lies, nonsense, shallow conceit and nothing more, that's what," said the Marshal. "How could it be? Haven't you seen all the schools, universities, academies, learned societies, and so forth?" And then he began prattling away: "I have a mind, you have a mind, he has a mind, we, you, they have minds, everyone has a mind!"

"Quite true, Marshal! Everyone has a mind. But tell me – how is this dish consumed?"

"How? Ha, ha, ha! What a question! The same way you consume duck, lamb or beef. You don't put them in your mouth so long as they're alive; and the larger the animal, the more you have to cut it to pieces before you can devour it. In the same way, mighty Phrenophagos eats a mind only when the thread that binds its two halves and holds the life within gets cut – and the larger the mind, the longer it sustains him."

"What thread?" I asked.

"Ah, so you don't know that the mind has two hemispheres, one which resides in the head, and the other in the heart, and that the pair are joined by a thread? And this thread can be snapped equally well by a jolt to either end. It takes merely a tug from one side, or from both at once."

"And this is the thread Phrenophagos snips when he is hungry for a man's mind?"

"Precisely. Except that Phrenophagos is too mighty to do this himself, he sits back and sends Phrenolestes around the world to cut the threads of people's minds. But doubtless you don't know what kind of creature Phrenolestes is, either? Allow me to explain. No sooner does he wake up every morning than the mighty Phrenophagos lights a cigar, raises his left hand to his head and plucks out a single hair; this he lights with the burning cigar and tosses in the air. From this hair instantly appears a humble fellow known as Phrenolestes. In the manner of Proteus, this Phrenolestes can take on any shape he pleases. He can be a man or a woman, a camel or a bat, but he is always Phrenophagos by his nature, which can't be changed one iota, and is the diametrical opposite of human nature. If the hair is pulled from the part of the skull Doctor Gall classifies as Number 4 in Organology, Phrenolestes is brutality personified, a scoundrel and a killer; if it is Number 6, he is as sly as a fox, and an incorrigible liar; should it be Number 22, he is a deranged poet; and so on. As soon as Phrenolestes is born, his father gives him a punch in the neck and sends him flying through the window and into the world, where he wanders till he has fulfilled his obligations."

"What obligations are those?"

"Simply to cut the thread of one person's mind. But because no one would willingly allow him to, Phrenolestes has to track down his victim, and when he has outfoxed and bamboozled him, he locks him in a cell and leads the poor madman to Phrenophagos's larder. Everyone you see here lost their minds through the manipulations of these crafty Phrenolesteses, and thus the larder is constantly replenished, and the mighty Phrenophagos is never short of minds for his table."

"And doesn't it leave a bitter taste in his mouth?" I said.

"Ah!" cried the Marshal, deeply astonished, "I must admit the idea had never occurred to me. I must ask him sometime. Now let's be off to see his larder."



Jakub Kozera

"A middle-aged man," said the Marshal after a time, "was recently locked in this cell, his face yellowish and drawn, with the desperate gaze of a madman, begging one and all for a zloty. And even today you need only show him some money and his blood will start to churn. His name is Jakub Kozera. This is his tale.

"One day old Phrenophagos went on a tour of his larders and fell into a fury – it was stocked with nothing but poets' brains. 'Brrr! I'm sick to death of that cold gelatin!' cried Phrenophagos, tearing his hair out and breeding a host of Phrenolesteses, which flew from his head. 'Find me a brain stoked with true passion!' cried the old man, stomping his foot in anger, and the Phrenolesteses darted across the world like sparrows."

"I suppose your protector was fed up with the classical poets?" I asked, "I would think the brains of today's Romantics are even overly heated."

"Oh, joke all you like! I know you don't believe it. Of course we're not speaking of real poets here, those who – call them Classical or Romantics – always took true passion to their bosoms from nature; we're talking about the pseudo-poets and pseudo-literati, in general terms. It's simple to pass sentence on these artists' emotions. Ever since the world was created, a vacuum has always been cold. Sometimes, in spite of all the laws of physics, something rumbles, rustles, thunders, and churns out rhymes or prose in this romantic wasteland – but warmth, this is unthinkable."

"Indeed! So the enlightened man can have no true feelings?"

"Woah, woah, hold everything! My apologies, my humblest of apologies. You've misunderstood. I never mentioned the unenlightened. Who knows, perhaps the dullards have hearts that pound more quickly? I was only speaking of the undereducated."

"Ah, that's something else. And who among the enlightened is the most unfeeling?"

"An amusing question! Certainly not whoever you have in mind – because I see you'd like to preen your feathers, but you're doing an awkward job steering the conversation. That's always how it goes when you try to peddle another man's goods as your own. Just tell me up front, have you something in mind?"

"Er, yes . . . quite . . . indeed . . . I recalled the opinion of an outstanding writer – or in fact, I can't remember if he's outstanding or not, but never mind. He said that feelings never go hand in hand with wit, and that whosoever holds this malicious, false object of the soul is invariably emotionless, cold, egotistical etc."

"Ha, ha, ha! Good that's not your own view, or I'd start to think badly of you. That's an old debate, a very old one. As the dearly departed Duclos once said: L'esprit n'est pas souvent fort utile à ce-lui, qui en est doué, et cependant il n'y a point de qualité, qui soit si fort exposée à la jalousie. Les sots sont presque tous par état ennemis des gens d'esprit.

"Serves you right, Pantofel," I thought. "for showing off with the opinions of outstanding writers." And to cloak my confusion, I hastened to say: "So then Marshal, let's return to the tale of that lunatic."

"Ah yes," said the little man calmly. "One beautiful day in May an old man of fantastical appearance stopped before the Lours confectionery; he had a cocked hat, dun boots and a gray tailcoat of a peculiar cut. He plucked a telescope from his pocket, extended it by a good two ells, and began staring at the sky. But the sky was clear, blue, the most lovely aquamarine, not a cloud as far as the eye could see. 'What could he see up there in the sky?' thought some friendly passersby, and each of them told themselves: 'There must be something, for why else would he stare?' And thus wondering at this puzzle, they stopped and gathered round the stranger, though he had already packed the telescope into his pocket and was merely staring skyward; more and more people surrounded him, until there was quite a crowd of onlookers, the like of which is seldom seen in Warsaw. Meanwhile, the stranger had quietly slipped away, and standing nearby, he happily observed the furor he'd raised in all that meat and bones. Have you deduced who our stranger was?"

"Surely it was Phrenolestes duping those friendly onlookers."

"Bull's eye! Right on the mark!" cried the Marshal. "But how did you know? I thought you'd easier eat your own head – hair, ears and all – than guess correctly."

"Ah Marshal, many things that seem difficult at first glance turn out to be quite the contrary. At any rate, 'eat' means more or less 'feed,' and haven't you met people who feed themselves and others on their own heads? Though it is less than fashionable nowadays, when a man can be satiated on just a face, ears, or hair alone. And there are plenty of people who less use their own heads than feed on others'. But tell me, what did Phrenolestes do next?"

"Ah yes, I've left the story hanging. Phrenolestes spotted one onlooker who seemed to have trouble raising his head, whose black eyes shone in their sockets like a pair of candles; he took him aside with a wink, saying: "Pardon me, but I am very much taken by your physiognomy; I should like to get better acquainted, and would be most delighted if you would agree to have lunch in the Chovot Hotel."

"'My dear sir,' Jakub Kozera happily replied, 'you've asked at just the right moment, for I've just stepped out of my office with no idea where to have my lunch. But the Chovot costs a pretty penny!'

"'Pay it no mind! You won't find a richer man alive. If I only so desired I could bury all of Warsaw in ducats, leaving you to dig the remains of this famed city out from under the lava of pure gold.'

"'Oh, how I would dig!' thought Kozera, entering the hotel.

"At the table, the old man resumed the conversation about his wealth. Kozera's eyes sparkled with a strange fire, which the stranger in turn devoured; his fork trembled in one hand, while the other convulsively clutched his knife.

"'And do you know, my good friend, how I earned such treasure? I used to be a poor office worker myself.'

"'Do tell!' cried Kozera, setting his fork and knife on the table and sidling up to the stranger, so that not a word might slip by unnoticed.

"'It was quite by chance, by an entirely unexpected stroke of luck. In my youth I had a passion for magic and the hermetic sciences as such. Once, perusing an old article by Albertus Magnus, I found among the secrets it contained a method for making a ring that, when worn, could fully satisfy one passion – but one only. If a man liked to drink passionately, for instance, the ring would constantly provide magnificent wines or drink of any sort; but should the same man then start to love hunting passionately, the ring would immediately lose all its mysterious power, Albertus claimed. Should a man want to use it, he would have to maintain a single passion unto death.'

"'And what did you choose to grow rich so swiftly?'

"'I liked gambling, and I still do to this day, but as I never lose, as my victory is certain, I have lost the true – the artistic, one might say – pleasure of the game. At any rate, there is now no end to my money, I am old, I should like to enjoy the world, but I scarcely know it, for I've frittered away my whole life in the gambling dens.'

"Kozera's eyes fairly leapt out of their sockets; they burned with the flames of hell. He glanced around and, seeing the room was empty, snatched the knife from the tabletop, leapt at the old man, and cried in a hollow voice:

"'Old man! The ring or your life!'

"Old Phrenolestes grinned and said:

"'Do you take me for an idiot, my boy, acting this way? If I hadn't had the intention of surrendering this ring even back there on the street, would I have brought you here, fed you, given you drink and shared my secret, only to be murdered? Here is your ring, take it and be my heir. Play cards, amass your riches, just remember: Don't go indulging in any other passions, for you shall lose everything.'

"And with that he departed.

"Kozera placed the ring on his finger, returned home and began shuffling cards all alone, imagining he held the bank and that across from him was his opponent. His opponent lost time after time! Jakub saw he had acquired incredible luck. He began laying down cards for two, then three, then ten opponents, and they lost one and all! In spasms of joy he danced round the room with the cards, rolled about the floor, swallowed a few aces, and raved like a madman, until he struck his head on the stove with such force that he regained his senses.

"The following day, Kozera played cards with a few amateurs, and beat them all. Later, he tried his luck at a different location every day, and everywhere his luck held true, until the rumors grew, and Kozera feared that the cause of his success would be misunderstood, and he would be branded a swindler. He then sometimes began playing without the ring – and seeking to lose, he lost tremendously. Thus he saved his card-playing reputation from catastrophe. Finally, he scraped together a bit of money again and went abroad, traveling about and trumping all of Europe – and adopting the name of 'Count,' he returned home with a vast fortune. Here he played constantly, lived in luxury, had vast numbers of friends, and was graciously admitted to the finest homes, for only a small-time gambler is accused of being a swindler, while a gambler of such repute, living in such splendor, and on top of that a count – well, this is something else! C'est un homme comme il faut. At last Phrenolestes grew weary of waiting to harvest the seeds he'd sown, and he decided to hasten things toward their conclusion.

"Assuming the figure of a Warsaw socialite he attached himself to Count Kozera's retinue and, having lost a great deal of money to him, began to forge a tight relationship. Kozera had practically no female company, for being entirely devoted to his single passion, he had developed rather revolting manners, and had no refinement to speak of. In the salons he removed himself as far as possible from the ladies, only stealing glances at the more handsome ones from afar. He did feel attracted at times to women, but he could not find the courage to strike up a conversation with them. Phrenolestes knew this perfectly well.

"One day, having lost a significant sum to Jakub, he said:

"'You know, my good Count, mon cher, we're going to the General's for a ball; and today things promise to be particularly lively.'

"'A little game of cards?' asked Kozera.

"'You know there's no gambling in their home.'

"'So what could I do there? I'd be bored.'

"'The notion! Think of all the women! A propos, among them will be Miss *** and her daughter Aniela. Just yesterday they spoke to me about it, and asked me quite expressly if perhaps you would be there? I ensured them you would, and they thanked me very sweetly.'

"'Who? Who?'

"'Why, Miss Aniela, naturally.'

"'Ah! A lovely girl! What's to be done? Let's go.'

"At the ball, Phrenolestes maneuvered Kozera close to Miss Aniela, and he was very graciously greeted. By then he was almost forty years old, he had squandered his life on gambling and excesses, his heart knew no emotions save the joys of winning money – and this joy had, through the conviction of sure victory, been worn threadbare and blunted. He had not a single live emotion inside of him. He seemed utterly incapable of love, which requires a fresh and untainted heart, and yet – whether because Miss Aniela was so beautiful, or because Phrenolestes thus arranged things – Kozera fell in love quite violently. So freely did he submit to this new passion that when Aniela desired he should stop gambling, he immediately vowed he would, shut his enchanted ring in a chest with seven seals, and to everyone's astonishment, he kept his word. With the same passion he had previously devoted to cards, he now dreamed only of his lover, and lived by the hope that she would someday give him her hand. And indeed – when her mother saw the remarkable change that had occurred in Kozera, she consented to their marriage.

"Kozera idolized his comely wife. A year later, the Lord granted them a son, and then their happiness was complete, until peculiar dreams began to torment Jakub. Every night the mysterious old man appeared before him and asked: 'And what have you done with my ring?' He impatiently opened the chest with its seven seals, placed the ring in his hand, and was immeasurably astonished to find that the precious gem, once the color of real gold, had lost all its luster, and had turned as black as a common ore! Terrified at this transformation, he snatched up a deck of cards, began dealing them to the left and the right, and saw that the talisman had lost its powers – the dealer's cards lost one game after the next! This made Kozera pause for thought – but recalling that he had enormous properties, a wife, and a son, his anxiety faded. And yet his condition steadily worsened. The old man appeared nightly in his dreams and whispered in his ear: 'Why did you give in to another passion? What's become of your talisman now, eh? If you'd like, I can still tell you how to set things right.'

"'Do! Do tell me!' cried Kozera in his sleep.

"'Listen carefully: in your long years of playing with the ring and observing the game you gained a great deal of experience – now play without the ring, and if through artful playing alone you defeat the most famous of card-sharps, I swear to you that the talisman will be restored to its old strength. And bear in mind – only by playing without the ring will you come to know the mysterious ecstasy of probing destiny, tracking the most so-to-speak intimate thoughts and caprices of fortune.'

"Kozera could not fend himself from the old man's deceptions, and started playing once more. Neither the pleas, the tears, and the sufferings of his wife, nor the persuasions of his friends could restrain him. The relapse was acute and irresistible. He would lose pocketfuls of gold, return home, beg his wife's forgiveness, vow he would change, and then make off for the gambling den the very next day. It was only now that he felt the fundamental nature of a passion – he preferred to lose than not to play at all. The death of his child, misery at home, his wife's illness – nothing reformed him. At last he lost everything, having even stolen Aniela's dresses in her illness and gambled them away. While she slept he stole the poor woman's pillow from under her head, cashed it in, and went to play it on cards, to win some money for his ailing wife's medicine and food.

"He lost the pillow!

"In despair he threw himself at the feet of a card-sharp and begged for the loan of one zloty. The sharp refused, because he knew the loaned money would go immediately to the gambling table, and the gambler's statute forbade such things. Frothing with rage, Kozera clenched his fists and fled the room. He bumped into a man in the doorway and gazed in wonderment – it was the old gambler who had once given him the ring, and of whom he had later dreamed . . . Between you and I, it was Phrenolestes, of course!

"'Money! Money!' shrieked Kozera, grabbing the old man by the throat. 'Give me one zloty, at least!'

"'What, so little? I'll give you more – your wife is mortally ill, after all, and she needs food and medicine.' And he gave him five ducats.

"Kozera's face beamed at the sight of the gold. He put four ducats in his pocket and held the fifth in his hand, thinking.

"'Well?' said Phrenolestes, 'Don't delay, play that ducat on the cards if you like, but hurry, because your fate hangs in the balance.'

"Kozera played – and won!

"Watching him from the sidelines, Phrenolestes gave a malicious smile.

"Intoxicated with his good fortune, Jakub tried again, playing rather successfully at first, but then finally losing everything, down to the last copper!

"'Curses!' he raged. Pulling out his hair and running to the old man, he cried once more: 'Spare a zloty at least for my wife!'

"'It's grown late,' said Phrenolestes, 'and your wife has just died of hunger. An hour ago I gave you five ducats and told you to hurry, but you preferred to kill her than to save her life. . .'

"Kozera blanched, his eyes popped out of his head, he swayed and fell into the hands of Phrenolestes, who promptly delivered him here."

translated from the Polish by Soren Gauger

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