(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

One winter night in the Radzymin study house, three Jews swap stories about pity. Zalman begins by telling of a Count Jan Malecki, who freed his serfs long before Czar Alexander abolished serfdom in 1861. Dividing his land among the peasants, Malecki worked as hard as any of them. Meanwhile, all of his relatives lived idly from his earnings. Despite Malecki’s egalitarian sentiments, the Russians who rule the area appoint him district judge. Because he is so tenderhearted, however, he never sentences anyone. As soon as he hears the flimsiest excuse, Malecki not only frees the criminal but also gives him money from his own pocket.

One felon who repeatedly appears before him is Wojtek, a robber, murderer, and rapist. Malecki can do nothing about this criminal because no one will testify against him. Finally, however, Wojtek goes too far. He is in love with Stasia Skiba, but she rejects him for the honest Stefan. As they are celebrating their wedding at her father’s house, the building burns down. Among the twenty dead are Stasia and Stefan.

This time there are witnesses to accuse Wojtek of arson and murder. The peasants jail him, but Maciek Sokal, the defender of all the local criminals, appeals to Malecki. The weak judge accepts Sokal’s claim of Wojtek’s innocence and signs the order for his release. Enraged, the peasants kill Sokal, Wojtek, and Malecki.

Zalman’s story reminds Levi Yitzchok of a similar one about the rich landowner Stanislaw Karlowski. In Kozienice, he was known as Crazy Karlowski because he squandered his money on foolish lawsuits. Everyone but Karlowski knew that his wife was having affairs, but he insisted on her chastity, even fighting a duel with someone who spoke against...

(The entire section is 712 words.)