Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1216
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 arrival of Prince Gintult, his brother’s old comrade. Peter and the prince exchange angry words about the treatment of peasants, however, and as the result of the quarrel, Peter has a hemorrhage and dies.
Having lost his home and melancholy with memories of Helen, who has been taken out of the country, Raphael goes to stay with the prince. In the noble household, Raphael is half family, half guest. The prince gives him money for clothes, and others give him errands to run. Raphael is attracted to the prince’s sister Elizabeth, a haughty young girl. One day, while they are riding in a group, Elizabeth’s horse runs away. Raphael rescues her and makes the mistake of kissing her as he holds her in his arms. She slashes his face with her whip.
The prince suddenly departs on a voyage to Venice and Paris, after paying Raphael’s lodging in a school for a year. Raphael studies fairly well and spends his time profitably. When he is forced to return home, his stern father outfits him in work clothes, and for four years he works on the farm. His release comes with an offer of a position from Prince Gintult.
In Warsaw, Raphael serves as secretary to the prince, who is writing a vague philosophical treatise on Freemasonry. In order to continue the work on the secret lodge, Raphael is taken into an order of the Masons; soon afterward, he is accepted in society. Through the lodge, he meets Helen again.
Raphael and Helen flee to the country to enjoy their love. One night, they sleep in a cave in the mountains. Although Raphael is armed, brigands overpower him as he sleeps and bind him while they attack Helen. She escapes their clutches at last and jumps off a cliff.
While he is searching for Helen’s body and tracking the brigands, Raphael is arrested by a patrol. He does not dare give his correct name or mention Helen for fear of defiling her memory. While in prison, he has a long siege of fever. More than a year passes before he is released.
Penniless and tramping aimlessly about the country, Raphael falls in with his old friend Christopher. The reunited friends spend happy months on Christopher’s estate. Then a soldier who has been with Napoleon for twelve years fires their imagination, and Raphael and Christopher decide to leave that Austrian-dominated part of Poland and join the emperor. Aided by Elizabeth, who is now married and living near the border, they make a daring escape across the frontier.
As an enlisted man, Christopher crosses Europe with Napoleon and takes part in the Spanish campaign. His most vivid impressions are those of the Siege of Saragossa, where he distinguishes himself for valor and saves a young girl from soldiers who have sacked a convent and raped the nuns. He is thrilled when Napoleon abolishes the Inquisition. After being wounded, he sees the emperor at close hand.
Raphael sees action in Poland, where the Austrian legions are too strong for Napoleon’s forces. Once the Poles are preparing to demolish a church held by the enemy. Prince Gintult, fighting as a civilian, attempts to save the church by interfering with the cannoneers, and Raphael helps him. For his deed, the prince is cut down by an officer’s sword. In the confusion, Raphael carries the wounded nobleman away to his father’s house.
When the fighting dies down, Raphael is discharged. He goes to live at his uncle’s old estate, and for a time he is happy there. He rebuilds the barns demolished by the soldiers, clears land, and begins building a house. Just as he is finishing, Christopher arrives. Invalided out of the army but well again, he is impatient for action. Reluctant to leave his home, Raphael objects at first; finally, however, he agrees to accompany his friend. In the middle of August, 1812, the Polish Corps is united with the Grand Army, and Raphael returns to serve the emperor. At Orsha, Napoleon reviews his hordes of Polish, Dutch, Italian, and German soldiers.
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