Czechoslovak Stories/At the Sign of the Three Lilies

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Czechoslovak Stories  (1920) 
At the Sign of the Three Lilies
by Jan Neruda, translated by Šárka B. Hrbková

AT THE SIGN OF THE THREE LILIES

BY JAN NERUDA

I think I must have been insane that time. Every fibre of my being was alive, my blood was at a white heat.

It was a warm, but dark, summer night. The sulphurous, dead air of the last few days had finally rolled itself up into black clouds. The stormy wind had whipped them before it earlier in the evening, then the mighty tempest burst its fury, a heavy shower came crashing down and the storm and rain lasted late into the night.

I was sitting under the wooden arcade of the hotel called “At the Sign of the Three Lilies” near the Strahov Gate. It was a small inn, which in those times always had more numerous visitors on Sundays when, in the main room the cadets and corporals used to enjoy themselves dancing to the strains of a piano.

Today it was Sunday. I sat under the arcades at & table close to the window, all alone. The mighty peals of thunder roared almost in constant succession, the downpour beat upon the tile roof above me, the water drizzling in splattering streams to the ground, while the piano inside the main room had only brief intervals of rest, ever bursting into sound anew. At times I looked through the open door at the whirling, laughing couples, and again I would gaze out into the dark garden. Sometimes when a brighter streak of lightning flashed I could see near the garden wall at the end of the arcade white piles of human bones. Formerly there had been a small burying ground here and this very week they had dug up the skeletons from it in order to rebury them elsewhere. The ground was still torn up and the graves were open.

However, I was able to remain at my table only a little while each time. Often I would arise and approach for a moment the wide open door of the main saloon to have a closer look at the dancers. Each time I was attracted by a lovely girl of about eighteen years of age. Of slender figure, of full warm outlines, with loose black hair, cut just to the neck, an oval, smooth face, and bright eyes, she was indeed a beautiful young girl. Her eyes enchanted me. Liquid clear they were, as mysterious as the calm surface of water, yet so restless, recalling to you at once the words, “Sooner will a fire be satiated with wood and the sea with water than a beautiful-eyed maid will be satiated with men!”

She danced almost constantly. But well she observed that she had attracted my gaze. Whenever she danced past the door in which I stood she would fasten her eyes on me, and as she danced on further into the ball I saw and felt that at every turn she bent her eye on me. I did not notice her talking to anyone during the course of the evening.

Again I stood there. Our eyes met immediately, although the girl stood in the very last row. The quadrille was nearing its close, the fifth round was just being finished, when another girl entered the hall, all out of breath and dripping wet. She forced her way to the girl with the beautiful eyes. The musicians were just striking up the sixth set. While the first chain was being formed, the new-comer whispered something to the girl with the lovely eyes and the latter nodded her head silently. The sixth set lasted somewhat longer, a brisk young cadet calling the changes. When it came to an end, the beautiful girl glanced once more towards the door leading into the garden, then went to the front door of the hall. I could see her as she slipped out, covering her head with her outer garments and then she vanished.

I went and sat down again at my place. The storm began anew as if it had not even begun to show its fury. The wind howled with renewed strength, the lightnings flashed. I listened shiveringly, but thought only of the girl, of those wondrous eyes of hers. To go home now was not, of course, to be even seriously thought of.

After a quarter of an hour I again glanced towards the door of the dancing-hall. There again stood the girl with the enchanting eyes. She was arranging her wet garments, drying her damp hair, while some older girl companion helped her.

“Why did you go home in such foul weather?” she asked.

“My sister came for me.” I heard her voice for the first time. It was silkily soft and musical.

“Did something happen at home?”

“My mother just died.” My whole body quivered.

The lovely eyed girl turned and stepped outside into the solitude. She stood near me, her eyes rested on mine. I felt her fingers close to my trembling hand. I seized her hand—it was so soft and tender.

Silently I drew the girl farther and farther into the arcade and she followed freely.

The storm had now reached its height. The wind fushed like a surging flood, heaven and earth roared, above our heads the thunders rolled, and all around us it was as if the dead were shrieking from their graves.

She pressed close to me. I felt her damp clothing clinging to my breast. I felt her soft body, her warm glowing breath—I felt that I must drink out that depraved soul from the very depths of her being!

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