What Beta and Bit saw resembled an illustration from a textbook on visual arts or geometry. All around them there were rows of regularly placed columns. The rows were so long that the last columns were barely visible in the darkness of the hall. The columns supported semi-circular vaults similar to domes covering side chapels in churches. Each brick was clearly visible. They created arches linking the columns; they run up the vaults yet they didn’t meet in the central points of the domes. The tops of the arch vaults were open and through these holes a pale light was falling into the hall. The perspective was incredible and funny at the same time –it was a mysterious place which looked like an empty box of chocolates turned upside down. Yet it evokes different associations in Beta and Bit. They had a feeling that they were in an old basement. They could feel sand under their feet and all around them they saw discarded planks, tools and wooden scaffoldings. The earthy smell of freshly upturned ground only intensified that feeling.
- What’s that?! - Bit was completely confused. – Alternative reality game or what?
- This time you really came to the acid. I always knew that your ideas would finally... – Beta didn’t manage to say anything else. Somebody gave her back a nudge.
- Aaa wy szto, rebyata?! Otvali! Nu paszli!
Beta and Bit turned around. Behind them there was a rather short man wearing a dark jacket and a visor cap. They had seen such clothes only at the old family photos that their grandpa used to show them. The man grabbed them by their necks and pushed them forward. They quickly went along the rows of columns. The silence of the basement was broken by the cries of the man. They understood no word of them. They hoped that the man would guide them to the exit.
He liked to walk around Warsaw. The Old Town, the Saxon Garden, Krakowskie Przedmieście Street, Łazienki Park. But also Powiśle. The poor Powiśle with its poor, hungry and dirty citizens. Sense of responsibility, not only journalistic in origin, and his solidarity with the vulnerable members of the society made him look into the darkest corners of the city. Aleksander Glowacki preferred only one thing to walks through Warsaw: summer walks around Nałęczów. That health resort was his favorite place of relaxation. Now, however, he was standing not in front of a spa house but among heaps of sand. He was brought here by curiosity. Will the city, sinking in the flood of pigswill and waste, finally manage to conquer the pervasive filth? Is it possible to get rid of that pungent stench attacking at the very turnpikes of the city? Finally, will the citizens of Warsaw stop dying before they really enter adulthood thanks to the sewage system? They were being killed by lack of clean water combined with lack of knowledge of the basic hygiene rules. Private wells located right next to privies, rubbish stored at dooryards, stinking open gutters –that was the everyday landscape of one of the biggest cities of the Russian Empire. That landscape didn’t belong to the outskirts of the city –things were pretty much the same in the very centre.
The idea to build a sewage system in the city wasn’t new but its realization begun only two years before. The man who was persistent enough to overcome bureaucratic difficulties , get round Saint Petersburg and deal with protests of the citizens who did not like the changes resulting from the works performed in the area of their beloved Saxon Garden was (ironically) a Russian general, president of Warsaw, Sokrates Starynkiewicz. At the same time the designer of the project, a famous British engineer William Lindley, who had designed sewage systems for many other European cities was a guarantee that Warsaw would get one of the most advanced sewage networks. As Lindley was already an old man at that time he handed over the construction to his sons and soon later he also handed over to them his engineering company.
Głowacki was brought out of his reverie about Warsaw by a noise. He saw a shouting man leading two teenagers in front of him. Suddenly the man threw them and loosened his grip. The force of the blow was too much for the girl. She lost her balance and fell on the sand.
- What are you doing to these kids? - Bit was helping his sister to her feet when some man came to their defense. His clothes were very smart: he was wearing a jacket, waistcoat, tie and a bowler hat. Bit also noticed his moustache, small pointed beard and round glasses.
- Pay attention to your newspaper, sir – their torturer said, this time using Polish but speaking with a strange accent. - Sir... Sir.. ja nie znaju, kak wy nazywajetie... ser... Głowacki – the man could not find the words or make up his mind what language to chose. - Dlia progulki v parkie. To the Saxon Garden. Pust' tam tiemy, kotoryje wy ishchetie. Wot... Wot... sierieznyje.... Serious things are happening here – he added at the end.
- I know. That’s why I’m here. – the man in the bowler hat didn’t lose his nerve.
- Let’s get out of here – Bit whispered to his sister. He wasn’t going to overhear their discussion. It was the right moment to escape. He took Beta by her hand and they run together through the sand until they hid behind some big heap a dozen meters away.
- What’s happened? Where are we? – Bit asked not even hoping for an answer.
- Have you got that watch? - Beta was very alarmed. - Bit! – only now the boy noticed that he was still holding a gadget that he had taken from Pietraszko’s secret room. – What was written there?! –the teenager didn’t even try to speak. She snatched the strange object from her brother’s hand. Yet before she as much as looked at it they had company again.
- What do you mean where? In Warsaw – a dirty boy in filthy clothes smiled at them. He couldn’t have been more than eight years old. – How did you manage to get there? What’s inside? Is there water already?- he showered them with questions. – Well, never mind, maybe I’ll check it myself. Come on, let’s better get out of here – he said. Beta and Bit agreed with him on that thing. Bit already wanted to follow the boy when Beta hissed: - Bit! Let’s go back!
- Calm down. We’ve got nothing to lose. Anyway, we don’t really have time now to deal with that weird watch.
- Are you coming? – their new friend urged them.
Walking on the sand was difficult and it took them a longer while to get to the road. Only then Bit looked behind his back. Some way off in the distance they could see a solitary tenement house and several low shanties. Right in front of them they could see a very extensive sandy dug up area. A dessert? No, rather a huge building site. Bit noticed that there were some enormous bubbles partially hidden under the heaps of sand. It looked as if somebody had dug into the ground several gigantic balls and had left his work unfinished. Or as if somebody had turned a huge empty box of chocolates upside down and put it on the ground. The area was evidently still under construction –there were men standing on the domes rising from the ground. Most of them were wearing white shirts and they were busy with their work. Next to them there was a redbrick tower which seemed vaguely familiar to Bit.
The boy suddenly understood that he was now looking from the outside at the same construction that he had been looking at from within a dozen minutes ago when he had been held by the scruff of his neck by that stranger. The bubbles which caught his attention were the vaults supported by the columns. He was sure that they’d got to the centre of that strange building through Pietraszko’s study.
- I’m Antek – they boy they’d just met said finally. – I’m coming home. Maybe I’ll meet my brother and get something to eat from him. He works as a servant and sometimes he brings me different things from the kitchen. You can go with me if you want.
- Sure – Bit already forgot about recently experienced fear. He felt the call of adventure once again. He wanted to learn more about that place. He felt as if he had been reading a science fiction book of which he was a protagonist. – I’m Bit and this is Beta – he said quickly and he followed their new acquaintance.
Beta was dismayed. She didn’t feel like going for any walks in that place. She only wanted to go home but in the end she went after Bit with resignation. She took a quick look at Pietraszko’s gadget. – One, eight, seven, six –she repeated in her mind. – Oh, my! This must be a date. We’re in 1876 in Warsaw, just like that boy’s said. So it should be enough to set that watch at 2015 and we can go home. How to do it? What should I press?
Beta would probably soon –in her opinion – find out how to get home if not for the smell that she suddenly sensed. She looked around. She wasn’t sure how far had they gone but the landscape had surely changed. The heaps of sand had disappeared and town buildings appeared all around them. They went past wooden shanties, low brick houses and tenements. There were more and more tenement houses. At the same time the smell became more and more annoying. In fact, instead of smell it should be frankly called a stench. A dark foul slit was flowing down the ditches at both sides of the street. From time to time different citizens poured another buckets of dirty water into the open sewers.
- What a stench! I would never guess it’s Warsaw –Bit said. – And I thought that I’d never see anything worse than Pietraszko’s beard and hair – he joked.
Beta tried to look for some similarities between that place and the city she knew but none of the tenement houses looked familiar to her. The girl couldn’t even say where they were at that moment. She guessed that they must have been somewhere near the centre as the street was cobbled as opposed to other streets they’d passed earlier. And there was more traffic. There were many cabs on the streets; some of them were very elegant and showy, the others rather simple and modest –they were probably built for less affluent people. From time to time a cart drove slowly past them. There was also traffic of pedestrians on the pavements: smart men in bowler and top hats and women in long dresses were having a walk. The women were unnaturally bent as if the weight of their hats and head dresses was too heavy for them. Or maybe it was the weight of the dress supports underpinning the trains of their dresses? There was also a different group living among these noble souls –its complete opposite, the poor. These people were dirty and their clothes were ragged. Beta observed that they were often sad. The poor tried to survive in the city engaging in all sorts of activities –women were selling fruit, girls were offering flowers, boys –newspapers. There were also beggars who were mostly ill or lame.
- Hi, Staszek - Antek stopped in front of one of the beggars sitting on the ground. He might have been Beta and Bit’s peer. – You’re not a servant anymore?
- I quitted – the boy said. – I earn here the same money and I don’t have to work so much. And nobody beats me here.
Both boys smiled. Beta noticed that one of the beggars, apparently horribly crippled, just stood up and went away.
- I’m off, maybe Bolek’ll come today – the eight-year-old explained to his friend and he went away. Beta and Bit followed him.
- That Staszek.... his crippled legs... is it from beating? – she asked.
- No way! – their new friend still kept on smiling. – He’s ok. He just pretends to get some money. Like everyone else.
Beta and Bit exchanged glances. Apparently not everything changed – Beta thought.
- I know where we are – Bit was a little breathless from walking. – There, at the very beginning. That tower. I know it. I’ve just remembered. These are Water Filters. That basement with vaults...
Beta interrupted him. – Oh, yes. We went there with dad. Exactly a year ago, during holidays. A nice place to visit. Mysterious.
And she added: - I also have something to tell you. Everything indicates that Pietraszko’s gadget is a time machine. We’re in 1876 –the device displayed that number at the beginning. We only have to enter 2015 to get home. Easy, isn’t it?
- I don’t know – Bit didn’t seem convinced.
They reached a vast square. A long building with low towers at its both sides was towering over the square. The siblings stopped and Antek looked at their amazed faces with satisfaction.
- Station. That is, the railway – he explained proudly.
However, it wasn’t the station what impressed the teenagers so much. They were amazed by what was going on on the street. They saw a multitude of one and two-horse cabs. People were shouting everywhere. One glance told them that that place wasn’t governed by any rules. The cabs were overtaking each other from both sides and they were driving straight through the middle of the square. Some of them were scurrying while others stopped suddenly because the driver met a friend with whom he wanted to chat. The pedestrians –fashionable ladies arm in arm with elegant gentlemen and noisy paperboys –were walking among them. At the top of that a horsecar was approaching the square and soon it would drive in the very centre of that street gathering.
- We’re gonna get through this? - Beta was sure some of them would get hurt. She saw a moment ago how one of the paperboys fortunately avoided being trampled by a horse after one of the cabs driving from the other side knocked him down.
- It’s always like that at Marszałkowska Street– the boy said with an air of an experienced fixture.
Marszałkowska Street ... finally something familiar –Beta thought. Yet apart from the name that street had nothing in common with the street she knew. Nothing else was the same.
- It looks strange without the Palace of Culture. Completely differently, like something was missing –Bit said. The Palace was for him the central point of Warsaw, its symbol. He thought it more important than even the Mermaid of Warsaw.
- The towers of the station look like tiered cakes– Beta noticed.
Their companion didn’t wait for them to finish their conversation. He stepped on the street. Beta and Bit snapped out of their meditation and quickly followed their guide.
- Get out of the way! – they heard somebody shout next to them. They turned around in that direction and they saw a horse racing right at them. They stood petrified. – Out of the way! – the cabdriver repeated. Antek reacted immediately. He grabbed their hands and pulled them aside. The cab brushed right past them. Yet the three of them were still standing in the middle of the street. The cabs driving in both directions didn’t let them cross the street. They waited for a moment and finally they got to the other side of the street.
- Stinking drunkards – the boy murmured like an adult. – You’ve got to watch out with these drivers. Now it’ll be a bit more peaceful. – he promised. In a moment they went in between the tenement houses. Beta and Bit smelled the stink of the sewage again.
Józef Wąs tried to clean the sewers. Faint-heartedly. It was a dirty job, stinking and badly paid. He cleaned only when he had to. He cleaned the bin for dishwater standing in the middle of the yard once in several weeks. He cleaned the latrines once a month. He wasn’t afraid of any control. The oberpolicmajster didn’t come here. And anyway, nobody complained. It was even easier with the sewers –the rain washed them. Unfortunately, it hadn’t rained for some time and Józef Wąs, the caretaker, had to get down to work finally. Today he didn’t feel like working more than usually. He hadn’t slept well because he’d had to get up during the night to open the gate. These 10 kopecks he got was not a satisfactory compensation for the night interruptions. Yet when he was looking at the sewers awaiting his attention he thought that he wouldn’t mind opening the gates at all, even in the middle of the night, if that was his only duty.
When Józef Wąs was thus struggling with himself when he noticed a boy coming in his direction. I know that kid – he thought. Two teenagers were following the boy. They were wearing outlandish clothes. The caretaker had never seen them here. The ‘kid’ took an apple out of his pocket, ate it quickly and went past the caretaker.
- Just try –Józef Wąs whispered.
The boy threw the apple core to the sewer and started to run. The other boy and the girl sprinted after him. The caretaker also started to run. He tried to reach them with his broom but he missed.
- Get out of here, snotnoses! You think that’s funny?! – he shouted. He threw his broom on the ground with anger and went to his gatehouse. Józef Wąs would not work in these conditions. And then he realized: in that small poor gatehouse he wanted to return to right now lived all his family –seven people in one room. Józef Wąs didn’t even enter. At the threshold he turned around and went to the gate. He took the broom from the ground and started to sweep the yard wondering if he had made a good decision when he decided to leave his village.
Antek was running and laughing loudly. Beta’d just realized that as they walked through the city they often passed fruit stalls. Was that where their friend got his apple from? Did he steal it? They passed other gates. Two men standing in one of the gates were trying to reach some bargain.
- For few roubles you may buy here even a watch –explained their eight-year-old friend.
In front of another gate an older boy was inviting the passers-by to play a game of three cards. – Black –you lose, red –you win –he was repeating. They heard a joyful cry of a winner. Several people stopped –success encouraged them. Will they be lucky as well? Beta and Bit also stopped but Antek didn’t let them watch. He grabbed their hands and pulled energetically.
- There’s always somebody who falls for this – their friend said. Beta and Bit didn’t understand. – The winner was the cardplayer’s partner. His role is to encourage others to bet – he explained.
- This place is a jungle – Beta said. – No laws are respected here, maybe apart from this one –the law of the strongest. I wouldn’t like to live here.
They entered one of the gates and got into the backyard of a tenement house. The high walls casted dark shadows. Yet even lack of sun didn’t manage to hide the fact that the yard was flooded with garbage. What is more, it was crossed by a network of sewers full of waste. Like rivers, the stinking sewages had their origins, springs. They started next to each stairs. Above each of these ‘springs’ there was a container filled to the brim with a disgusting slurry. Beta and Bit saw a woman go out of the house and pour a bucket of swill into the fetid tub. Surprisingly, the content didn’t overflow. In addition to that there was a latrine in one corner of the yard. The stench of the latrine mixed with the smell of the sewage and literally got stuck in their noses.
- Antek! – somebody shouted and the eight-year-old turned in the direction of the gate. A boy was calling up his name and waving his hand. Antek run to him and Beta and Bit followed –very willingly. They didn’t feel like staying in that yard even for another moment.
- Here you are, bro – said the stranger and he gave the eight-year-old a lump of bread.
- This is Bolek, my brother – he introduced his brother. – What else have you got there? – he asked seeing that his brother was squeezing something under his arm.
- It’s a newspaper.
- May I see? - Bit asked but he didn’t wait for the boy to answer. He took the newspaper from him and started to leaf through it. Beta quickly came close to him. They immediately noticed the year of publication: 1885. The newspaper covered mainly topics such as hygiene, lack of order on the streets, accidents caused by coachmen. Name of one of the authors struck their eyes: Bolesław Prus.
- Give it back– Bolek demanded impolitely. He snatched the paper from Bit’s hands.- I’m off, kid. Maybe I’ll come tomorrow.
He went away. Antek followed him with his eyes. After a moment he run after him and took him by his hand.
- Beta, have you got that gadget? – Bit asked suddenly. – Switch it to 2015 and let’s go home.
- It’s not going to be that easy. I still don’t know how it works –Beta tried to convince him.
- Give it to me. Quickly, before that kid comes back – he hastened his sister.
Bit touched the display intuitively and he entered 2015. Then he pressed the button.