(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

When he is very young, Raphael Olbromski pays a short visit to the secluded estate of his uncle, Nardzevski, who is fond of his nephew and initiates him into the art of hunting. The fierce old man is a firm adherent to the values of feudal times and treats his peasants as serfs. Casper, his huntsman, is his only intimate. Raphael’s visit comes to a sudden end at the arrival of an Austrian official who lectures Nardzevski severely on not having paid the new taxes and for his treatment of his peasants. The old man has no intention of submitting to the Austrians. To emphasize his defiance, he practices his pistol marksmanship in the dining hall. He also orders his steward to summon all the peasants in the morning and arrange for a public flogging of a miscreant. Raphael never learns what happened afterward, because early in the morning he is bundled into a sleigh and sent home.

A great sleighing party one winter attracts all the gentry. Raphael, mounted on a spirited horse, follows Helen’s sleigh closely. The party stops to dance at Raphael’s house, and his aristocratic father stages a big celebration. During the affair, Raphael manages to tell Helen that he will come to her window some evening at midnight. The party lasts for two days, but Raphael misses much of it because he sleeps in a drunken stupor.

At school, Raphael is no student, but he is a leader. One evening, he and his friend Christopher Cedro steal a rowboat and go out into the ice-packed Vistula. When they try to land, the thin shore ice breaks, and the boys are soaked. As they go on toward school, they sink into a bog. They are nearly frozen before Raphael takes decisive measures. He tears off his wet clothes and those of the weakened Christopher, and the boys pummel each other to get warm. Then, quite naked, they run back to school, where they are caught as they try to slip inside. Christopher falls ill with fever, and Raphael, as the leader, is chastised. When the beadle tries to carry out the punishment, however, Raphael draws a knife, wounds the beadle, and escapes.

When Raphael arrives home in disgrace, his father imprisons him in a small room and forbids the family to speak to him. Later, he has to spend months working with the peasants. One night, Raphael takes a fine mare from the barn and rides through a storm to Helen’s house. When a watchman comes upon them in an outbuilding, Helen gets back to her bedroom safely, but Raphael barely escapes the fierce watchdogs.

A storm comes up, and Raphael is followed by four wolves. When his horse stumbles, the wolves are on him. Three bring down the horse; Raphael kills the fourth with his hands. Gravely wounded, he is found by an old peasant, who takes him home. When he recovers, his family casts him out and sends him to live with his older brother Peter, whom they had cast out years before.

Peter, in poor health from war wounds, lives quietly. Raphael spends delightful months in idleness until the...

(The entire section is 1216 words.)