Czechoslovak Stories/Barbara

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BARBARA

 

BY CAROLINE SVĚTLÁ

 

It caused much mirth among the people that Matýsek and Barka[1] wished to get married! She almost reached to the ceiling, whereas when he sat down to the table, his head was barely visible above it. She laughed from morn till eve, whereas he was always pouting. She would have charged ten Prussians single-handed, while he dropped his eyes and blushed a deep red whenever anyone glanced at him without warning. Barka was always contented with things as they were in whatever form they came, she accepted them. When things were at the worst, she would remark, “Well, never mind!” and soon forgot her trouble. Matýsek, on the contrary, remembered things for a long time and at even a trivial circumstance he would whine, “Too much is too much!”

Whenever people saw them together, they always marvelled how these two came to care for each other

It began when they were both still watching flocks. They used to drive their herds to the same pasture. As soon as Matýsek’s two goats were feeding, he paid attention to nothing else, but sat down somewhere under a bush, found a stick, drew out his pocket knife and began to whittle out something

But the other boys would not permit this. They wanted everyone who used the same pasture with them to play the same sort of pranks they did. If Matýsek did not wish to obey them—and he often didn’t-they would snatch his knife, throw it away and break whatever he had just carved out. The more he pouted and growled about it, the more they made wry faces at him, as is customary in such mischievous groups.

But as soon as Barka from a distance noted that the boys were teasing Matýsek, she ran directly to a tree, broke off a goodly branch, and rushed after the boys. She barely glanced around when she was among them and where the bough struck was all one to her—why had they not left Matýsek in peace?

“This is for remembrance! And if it seems too little to some of you, just come, I’ll give you plenty more till you’ve had enough,” she would shout after them when, with much squalling, they dispersed in all directions. Then she seated the whimpering Matýsek back under his bush, found his knife for him and sought out the pieces of wood. After such a distribution of punishment, Matýsek had a fine time at the pasture for a week at least.

To be sure, the boys did not let it pass without comment that Barka always protected Matýsek.

“There, there,” they shouted at her when she was quieting his wailing. “Put him away nicely into a box so that the birds may not swallow him in place of a fly. If a grasshopper tramples him to death, it will be all up with your wedding and we’d lose out on our gifts.”

But the instant they saw Barka raising the switch they were off with the wind and ran until their heads shook. They had ample proof that Barka had the strength of fifteen of them and they knew they could not overcome her even if all of them at once pitched into her.

 

Matýsek was in the service of a childless old widow who was no longer able to get about on her feet and whose sight was very dim. She was satisfied with the amount of work he did and the way he did it, and never cheated him out of food. She was glad she had a helper who did not cheat her. Nevertheless, Matýsek often complained that no one had it as hard as did he, and that too much was too much.

Barka served on the estate of the worst pinch-penny in the entire neighborhood. Her fingers were like jagged pegs from sheer hard work, all the veins in her neck were swollen and her face was so burned from the sun and wind that her skin was always peeling. She served him each year in return for ten yards of linen cloth for a waist and a loose jacket and for one pair of winter shoes. Instead of wages he let her have small tips whenever he sold a head of cattle from his stables or when she carried the corn to the mill, and yet she found cause for praises.

“Not a day passes but what the peasant gives me food,” she said delightedly to Matýsek. “And I have shoes to wear to church. Since I’ve been on his estate I have provided myself with two heavy wool head shawls, one skirt and one coat. I don’t have to wear my linen jacket on Sundays if I don’t wish to.”

And Barka was in the tenth year of her service at the miserly peasant’s.

Sometimes people laughed about the attachment of the two and then again they asserted, also laughingly, to be sure, that the two just suited each other as if the pigeons had borne them. By which they meant that one was about as weak mentally as the other.

If anyone let drop a whisper of such an insinuation before Barka, she let it stand as far as it applied to herself, replying only with her customary, “Never mind!” But God forbid that anyone should so express himself about Matýsek. She was up in arms immediately.

“You just let Matýsek alone,” she shouted till she was fairly purple. “He has sense enough for himself and he doesn’t have to have it for others.”

Matýsek never so violently opposed anyone who had anything against Barka or himself, but it never was erased from his memory. If he had to pass near such a person, he dropped his eyes and would not have raised them if he had known that he’d be shot for it. Yes, Matýsek had his own head and knew how to set it and also how to punish people whom he had cause to dislike.

At the dances none of the girls wished to be Matýsek’s partner, claiming he wasn’t grown up enough and was unhandsome and scowly. Besides, he had nothing to dress up in except the jacket left him by his deceased father, and they said his vest showed for a good hand’s length beneath the jacket, which was decorated with buttons as big as one’s fist. They had other faults to find with him also, but this did not worry him, for he always managed to dance to his heart’s content without them. Barka always sought out Matýsek at the dances herself. She held him by the hands as a mother does her one-year-old when she is teaching him to stand up like a little man, and thus she danced with him as long as his breath lasted. She herself never ran out of breath, even if she had remained on the dancing floor all night.

But it was no real pleasure or gratification to dance with Matýsek, for he did not know one note from another and never seemed to get into step. He hopped about as best he could, hanging his head and inclining his whole body forward. If his partner had not held him firmly, who knows how many times he would have had to kiss the floor in an evening. But Barka made up for it by bobbing up all the higher and the more merrily beside him, looking about over the whole room meanwhile to see if everyone was taking proper notice of how well Matýsek could guide. During the entire dance she smiled happily, showing her white teeth. The people fairly held their sides when watching these two dance.

“Why do you persist in dancing with such a clumsy fellow? You trip so lightly and we’d like to take you for a few turns ourselves,” the boys shouted to Barka, but only in mockery and never in earnest, just to see what she would say. They would not have taken her to dance for a great deal unless they intended to insult and anger their own sweethearts.

But Barka always cut them off sharply.

“Just you take whomever you please for a turn. I’ll keep Matýsek and I’ll not let you abuse him either. He knows how to weave an Easter whip of forty strands, he can make a broom, and a battledore for a shuttlecock as well. Everybody doesn’t have to go ramming his head into idlers for beauty or to crush rocks with their hands.”

And again she was with Matýsek in the whirl and whoever failed to turn briskly enough, him would she take by the elbow and shove out so effectually that he wondered what world he was in and how he got there. Matýsek was much pleased with Barka’s agility and he continued in low whispers to indicate others for her to jostle out of the circle, chuckling meanwhile till he nearly choked. He used to say to Barka afterwards when he escorted her home that he wouldn't want another girl, not even for all of Jerusalem, and that he’d stay faithful to her even if brides from Prague itself would send him word to come to marry them.

If Matýsek’s mistress gave him cheese on his bread at the Sunday meal, he ate the bread and saved the cheese for Barka. If on Sunday Barka received a muffin at the peasant’s, she at once put it aside for Matýsek. As soon as Matýsek had washed his wooden spoon after dinner, he threw off his linen blouse and put on the red vest he had inherited from his father, and over it he drew the blue jacket which was so displeasing to the girls.

Barely had Barka finished milking after dinner when she slipped on her starched skirt, placed one of her wool kerchiefs on her head, another around her neck and went to meet Matýsek.

She knew to a hair when he would come, although they never made a definite arrangement. He, in turn, not only knew well that she would come, but just in what spot among the trees he would first see her.

“You wouldn’t go to meet any other man, would you?” he used to ask after they met.

“Not for seven golden castles,” Barka assured him.

It was really remarkable how devoted they were. Never had a youth or maid cared for each other as did those two who seemed to have but one soul in common.

When it was cold or rainy, they sat down beside each other in the stable. When it was bright and sunny, they seated themselves somewhere on the boundary stones. He reached into his pocket and drew out the cheese neatly wrapped in a large walnut leaf, while she unfolded her fresh white handkerchief and gave him the mutfin. They ate and sunned themselves, but if it happened to be warm, they took a little nap or at other times they got into such an earnest conversation that they did not know how to end it. Matýsek knew how to lead one into strange discussions and often Barka shivered in wonderment at him.

For instance, if, from their position on the boundary line, he saw a carriage approaching on the highway, he would begin conjecturing who rode in it, whether the steward from the court, the brewer from the city or, perhaps, the Prince himself.

“There ought to be a law against certain people always riding while others must continually go on foot and also against some persons having great wealth while others have nothing,” Matýsek reasoned between conjectures.

“The court will hardly make a law against such things,” was Barka’s opinion.

“I’m quite sure the rich men won’t permit such a law,” grinned Matýsek. And to think that people said he was weak mentally!

“Perhaps if God wished it, it would come to pass,” judged Barka. “But most likely it isn’t the law because it wouldn’t agree with everyone’s health.”

Matýsek remained firm, however, that a law should be enacted making it possible for all people to ride in carriages and from that stand he refused to budge. But Barka nevertheless tripped him up on the matter.

“And who, good friend, would then look after the horses? Who would water and feed them?”

Matýsek could not quickly answer and remained for a long time looking at Barka with wide eyes and open mouth. He evaded giving a direct reply by expressing the wish that he might some day have so much money that at every step it would jingle in his pocket.

“It will all come to you,” Barka encouraged him.

“Oh, no, it won’t,” complained Matýsek, but at the same time he wanted Barka to assure him again.

“Yes, indeed, it will come,” she reiterated. “Isn’t it already beginning for you? It is commencing for me, too. We have quite a bit of money out among people, and if we are alive and well, we can get the good of it.”

“Where did you say we had money?”

“Why, at our masters’. If we have health and serve them for twenty years yet, no mere hundred will cover what they owe us. Just count it up!”

“Wait,” pouted Matýsek. “You’re making sport of me.” But he couldn’t frown very long and had to smile a little at least at the way in which Barka had turned the matter. It seemed as if she were poking fun at him and yet what she said was true. And, indeed, taken all around, Barka was right. Seeing that he was prepared to smile, Barka began to laugh also and Matýsek joined in heartily, while they figured how much money they had out among people and how rich they were.

But in the midst of her laughter, Barkas eyes filled with tears.

“One thing, at least, was fulfilled for my dear mother,” she sobbed, trying to smile at the same time. “She always used to tell me, ‘I can bequeath nothing to you, but may God grant that you may inherit one trait from me. I don’t know how to be angry and I can always find the bright side of everything I meet—let it be what it will.’”

Matýsek’s eyes were wet also. When he could not see her laugh without smiling himself, it is not to be wondered at that he could not see her cry without weeping with her! I have already said that in those two beings there was but one soul.

“There’s nothing on this earth I wish for,” sobbed Barka, “but one thing and that is, that I might some day go to Vambeřice. It is there my mother offered me to the Holy Virgin and there she prayed that I might inherit her good nature.”

“Some day you’ll get your wish,” Matýsek now in turn comforted Barka. “And perhaps much more, besides,” he added, and he was glad be thought of it as a means of bringing her out of her tears.

“Do you think I’ll some day be able to have a green jacket with a sulphur-yellow border?” sighed Barka, wiping her eyes with her work-calloused hands. “I must say I’d dearly love to have something pretty in which to go to Communion.”

“And wouldn’t you like to have a goat of your own, and a little cottage, too?” Matýsek inquired of her searchingly.

“Why wouldn’t I want a goat and a home of my own? Of course, I’d want it. But, believe me, if I could really have a house, I’d not give in an inch unless I’d have hanging beside the stove a spoon rack, painted a blood red and made for eight sizes, with four pewter spoons in each.”

“And if I had my own room,” Matýsek cried, seeming to have grown a head taller, “I, too, would know what I want. At once I’d quit all peasant toil and would begin weaving brooms. That’s something worth while. A man can sit in the warmth and where it’s clean and can keep busy at his own work. Everyone inquires after him and knows of him. Nobody can get along without a broom-maker.”

“That’s true,” Barka nodded assent. “To be a broom-maker is a very fine thing. I, too, like that trade.”

“I wouldn’t spend all my time making brooms,” boasted Matýsek and again he seemed to have grown much taller. “I’d also make wooden lanterns and would fit in the glass sides myself, and if anyone wanted a cage for quails, I’d make it for him and attach a little bell at the top. I’d go in for making a dog-kennel as well. I’d paint it green and to make it please everybody, I’d fix on it a blue star and a little yellow moon. Don’t you think I couldn’t do it. I could!”

If some one from the village passed by and saw them sitting beside each other debating so fervently, he did not fail to pause and ask them, “When, good people, do you intend to get married?”

“Oh, some day,” Barka dispatched the inquisitive one.

“It’s high time. You were courting when I was wooing my wife and now I have a son almost ready for marrying—”

“Well, everything doesn’t have to be done in a rush. What awaits a man will come to him of itself.”

“That’s all true, but a man must set some limit of time for doing everything.”

“Well, then, it will be when our masters mention it to us.”

“You’ll have a long wait!”

“Never mind! We’re not in any hurry just now.” Matýsek never answered such questions, but always remembered everyone who approached them in this matter. A hundred times such an inquirer might pass or call to him, but each time he would drop his eyes and pot lift them until the mocker was past.

How did Barka guess that whatever awaits a man will come to him of itself? Everything that they had ever wished for and which they had discussed on Sunday afternoons was fulfilled for them with the excep tion of one little point. Would anyone have said that such things are possible? Never!

Barka’s cousin who had never claimed relationship to her died. She had been a strange woman. She had but one danghter with whom she lived in great ill-will because the young woman had married someone whom the mother disliked. She let her daughter move away with her husband far beyond the borders, but never made inquiries about her and when a letter came from her she refused it. The mother and daughter had not known of each other for many years.

When, after the death of the mother, the court wrote to the daughter to come and claim her inheritance, it developed that she was long since dead and her husband also. No children remained and as there were no other relatives, everything fell to Barka. Of a sudden, she owned a house, an orchard, a little field and meadow, two goats in the stall, all sorts of cabinet and carpenter material, and in the chamber two chests full of clothing. In one were suits which had belonged to her deceased cousin's husband. He had been a carpenter and dressed very well. Among these possessions remained a fur coat and a blue top coat as handsome as if the tailor had brought it that very day. As soon as Barka opened the second chest the first thing she saw was a green jacket with a border as yellow as sulphur.

Beneath the jacket lay so many skirts that Barka could have put on a different one every day in the week, though she would not have done this for the whole world. She had too great a fear of God.

When Barka first heard of her inheritance she was so stunned that they had to pinch her arms to make her come to her senses, and it was no wonder, for it really was unbelievable. She continued to stand motionless, unable to comprehend that what had been her cousin’s was now to be hers and that never again did she need to be a servant—nor Matýsek either. “Do get some wisdom in you,” the master of the place urged. “If you’ll be as stupid as this, people will soon deprive you of what the Lord has lavished on you. I already see in my mind’s eye how you will let yourself get cheated until you will again have nothing. I must myself intervene so that you’d not complain some day that I had no more sense than you. It will be best if you get married and that very soon. I can readily tell you of a bridegroom who will very carefully attend to all the matters concerning your property and you yourself will not have to pay any attention to them.” And the peasant named his own brother who about a year before had lost his wife. People said that he beat his wife to death. He was known as a bully far and wide. If a person just barely looked at him, having no evil intention whatever, he called him in the ring for a fight. People went a hundred feet out of the way to avoid him. His children all took after him and were as evil as their father. The peasant was afraid that his brother might some day kill someone and, should he be sentenced to prison, the degenerate children would come into his home. He would much rather wish them upon Barka.

They had to resuscitate Barka again, for his speech frightened her so.

“How can you talk to me of your brother, when you know that I have Matýsek!” she rebuked him, trembling all over.

“Surely you don’t intend, now that you have property, to tie yourself to that hungry, half-dead mortal who has nothing and never will have, to the day of his death? He was good enough while no one else wanted you.”

You should have seen how Barka flared up! She flushed with anger and every nerve in her body was strained. “The man I wasn’t good enough for before this,” burst violently from her lips, “isn’t good enough for me now. Matýsek has wanted me for years and never cared for another. Even if a bride from Prague had sent for him, he wouldn’t have married her for all of Jerusalem, and you think I’d consider another man now? No, not for seven golden castles, not even if my own patron saint made the match. Indeed, not even for the sake of the Virgin Mary would I forsake him.—That is my vow!”

And Barka became almost ill at the idea of being torn away from Matýsek. When she got breath enough, she set up such a wailing about Matýsek that it could be heard to the village square. She was not to be quieted, and the peasant, though he kept on trying to persuade her in order to provide for his hectoring brother and wicked children, could do nothing with her. He left her in great wrath, seeing at last that she would not yield, but he did not speak a single word to her any more while she was there.

Matýsek, however, was not in the least astonished at the turn affairs had taken. Why, had not Barka long promised these things? They had been awaiting it, talking of it, finally it was actually here, so what was there strange or unusual about it? Indeed, he wondered why it hadn’t come to them long ago. It never once occurred to him that perhaps now he might not be desirable to Barka. People here and there hinted it to him in envy, but he laughed in their faces. He not to be desirable to Barka! For her there was no one else on earth so well suited.

Barka stood staring at him when he announced that he was going to the parsonage to order their banns. She could not comprehend where he had suddenly accumulated so much boldness. As soon as she told him to go if he thought best, he adjusted himself deliberately and then strode through the village to the priest so energetically that the latter thought it was some fine gentleman coming to him. From the time he heard his banns proclaimed in the church, Matýsek never got out of people’s way, but, on the contrary, others stepped aside for him. God alone can judge where by a hand's turn he acquired the ability to act the part of a great man. Those who had not seen him for a long time and now met him did not know in what manner to address him. In a word, he was totally changed from his former self.

Barka inherited with the property a female tenant with four children. She was happy over this and at once embraced the little ones in her love, remembering her own widowed mother and the days of her orphaned childhood. But Matýsek was different.

He examined the widow and her children with an eye so severe that the tenant involuntarily hid behind Barka and the children began to shake with fear. Then he inquired if they understood properly who and what he was. When the poor things did not know what to answer, he told them that he was master in the home and that everyone must obey him, and when he ordered something done in the house or on the field or in the stable, it must be carried out to the hair. In order to confirm this by example, he sent out each child successively about five times for something or other which he had no use for and which the child then had to carry back.

The children hardly dared to breathe. “You’d like it, wouldn’t you?” continued Matýsek. “All day to be in idleness, to fear no one or nothing? But I’ll spoil all that for you. I’ll give you exercises and training until I teach you order.”

Barka was not at all opposed, for why shouldn’t he speak up to the children if it pleased him? And besides, even if he shouted, it didn’t injure them, and then, how grandly it suited him to act lordly!

The first day after the wedding she gave him an ample supply of coins to jingle in his pocket. He would not permit the children to even come near that day, and on Sunday, when he put on his top coat, they did not dare even look at it for fear they’d soil it.

Matýsek now whirled about proudly in a clean, warm room into which he’d call the children ten times a day to hear them repeat who was master in the house and from which he would ten times expel them for the most varied crimes such as disrespectful coughing or sneezing in his presence, but mainly for silence when he questioned them regarding his own importance and significance. Some days the children did little else than open the door to each other in a succession of such “exercises.”

Barka did not cease to marvel at the fortune which was theirs, especially when her eyes fell on the wall beside the stove, where hung a spoon rack, painted red, made for eight sizes and four pewter spoons on each, the kind she had always longed for. Sometimes she gazed at them for an hour at a time. She and Matýsek now ate only with pewter spoons and from porcelain dishes. They did not have a single wooden spoon nor wooden bowl in the whole house. Neither was there anything else of mean and lowly associations to be found in their dwelling from attic to cellar. It was not to be wondered at that Matýsek would not permit it and that Barka gave her consent.

Matýsek carried out his oft-repeated intentions, and renouncing all peasant labor, began weaving brooms. He would not let Barka go to pasture the cattle nor for wood to the grove. The tenant had to see to all this and Barka dared do nothing else but prepare meals and sit beside him and spin. He wanted her to have him before her constantly and to admire him.

Barka often wondered not only that he wished this but that he was so truly in earnest about it. He made not only brooms, but lanterns, cages and anything his fancy suggested. Many people now knew of Matýsek and sought him out. It was just as he had predicted—he had become a notable. Often he related to the children that all this was just what he had anticipated when Barka used to take his part while they were both pasturing flocks. At the same time, he admonished them to be mindful of his every word and deed so that they too might some day follow in his footsteps, but he had great fears that such a result would not really be attained, for, not in a single trait did the children resemble him.

When the children had to hop about Matýsek practically all day, and, as the whim struck him, had to rush away or come speeding back, to speak or remain silent, to place things within his reach or to remain motionless at a safe distance, Barka would often secretly supply them with dainties which their mother could not have provided. She did this in order that they should the more willingly do his bidding. But Matýsek was not supposed to know of any such proceeding and Barka had to exercise the greatest caution. Whenever Matýsek learned of such a gift, he pouted and whimpered: “Couldn’t you have given it to me? It would have done me more good than them.”

The doghouse with the star and the moon ornaments which Matýsek had joyously planned on for so long, he made for himself.

“Why shouldn’t we ourselves have something unusual?” he said to Barka. And he bought a dog to put in the kennel. Although it was a white dog, he called it “Gypsy.” His former mistress had a dog named “Gypsy” and he could not break himself of the habit of calling every dog by that name.

When the weather was windy or stormy, Matýsek would lose himself in thought for two hours at a time.

“What have you in your head again?” Barka would ask, smiling proudly meanwhile. She knew he was planning something that no one else would have thought of. And she was right.

“I was debating whether a person could make some sort of cage or trap to catch the wind and hold it. That would be an advantage to us in our mountains here, wouldn’t it, our Barka?”

From the time they had married, they never addressed each other otherwise than "our Barka” and “our Matýsek.”

Barka assented that it would indeed be a great convenience for people to entrap the wind so that it would do no harm.

“Well, who knows? You may work it out successfully,” she often said. “When people have been able to catch and chain the lightning and thunder and it submits, why shouldn’t you be able to devise a cage to catch the wind?”

Sometimes Matýsek would suddenly cast aside the broom he was making and would stretch himself out on the bench behind the table.

“I don’t have to work if I don’t want to, do I, our Barka? No one has a right to give orders to me nor to you either. Leave your spinning and come, sit beside me at the table. Let’s have a game of cards, a little smoke and a bit of something to drink.”

“Well, why not?” Barka agreed with him, and leaving her spinning wheel, she went to the cupboard for pipes, cards and glasses. The pipes were lighted, Barka poured some bitter brandy into the glasses, shuffled the cards and they played, smoked and sipped to their hearts’ content. As a matter of fact, Matýsek at first did not even know how to play cards or smoke, and it was all he could do to swallow the bitter brandy, for he was accustomed only to whey. But Barka kept telling him that he would always miss something if he did not learn to take a drink now and then, to play cards and smoke. Finally he consented to try it. But she had to agree to try it all with him, for without her he would none of it, and when she wished to have him continue at it as was fitting for a fully qualified master of an estate who expects the esteem of people, he would not have it otherwise than that she, too, should continue beside him smoking and sipping.

Hardly had Barka fully arranged her new household, when she thought of Vambeřice. She was of the opinion that her planet poured fortune on her only because her mother had offered her in sacrifice at Vambeřice.

Matýsek could hardly wait till she returned from the pilgrimage. Even the first day he ran to the window every little while to see if she were already coming back. In order to have the time go more rapidly, he kept pushing the clock ahead and made marks on the door to indicate how many days she had been gone and how soon she was certain to return.

“Too much is too much,” he grumbled, impatiently, returning alone to his room. During all that time, he never touched the cards, pipe or glasses, and even refused to look at his brooms. The tenant could not suit him by a single glance or act. Barka had arranged for her to cook for Matýsek in her absence, but he found fault with everything that she prepared and brought to the table.

The children, however, fared the worst of all. They barely crossed his path when he started after them with a switch and drove them out. If they were not around him, he went looking for them with a rod, inquiring why they were not at hand to do his bidding. So it went constantly just as in a comedy. The sun was still high, when he would cry out to the tenant, “Have those children say their prayers and put them to bed so there would be some peace!” She had hardly heard them repeat their prayers and put them on their beds of hay when he burst out on her with a tirade for bringing up her children as lazy lollers who will never know anything but how to sleep and surely would come to some evil end. He roused such fears in the woman with his predictions of a terrible death for her children that she herself seized the whip and drove the children from the hay. Half asleep they were forced to seat themselves beside her around the old tilted-up cask, used to hold cabbage, and she compelled them to strip chicken feathers for down for the winter. They stripped for hours till both children and mother, together with the tub, toppled over on the floor, where they slept exhausted from very fear, continual running and uneasiness until the next morning, when the treadmill began anew.

Barka had her hands full to again bring about order when she returned. They had all lost flesh, in fact, were fairly ill and from all sides came only complaints and accusations in which she had the hard task of acting as judge. She made an end to all at once by vowing with uplifted hand that she would never again go away on a pilgrimage. At that time the poor thing did not know that she had near at hand another pilgrimage from which there is no returning.

Without any previous warning, Barka’s hand began to swell.

“It must be because I am no longer doing any real work,” she said to Matýsek. “All the strength stays in my hand and that’s why it is swelling. It isn’t healthy for anyone to be lazy. I said that to you more than once when we were both single and you used to wish that all the people could just ride around in carriages and do nothing.”

The tenant did not like the looks of the hand. It seemed to her that it was somehow caused from the bone.

“Just as soon as the snow melts, I’m going beyond the mountains to get you a doctor. He is very much renowned and doesn’t ask too much money either.”

“Let him ask what he will, I’ll count it out for him here on the table,” boasted Matýsek, jingling the coins in his pocket. He was grieved that Barka seemed to grow weaker from the afflicted hand and had to lie down every little while. When he did not have her beside him, he was lonely. They had to move her bed right under the very window so that she could see him clearly and he could look at her.

The tenant did not wait for the snow to melt, but at the first gleam of a warmer sun, when a little break could be seen through the windows in the orchard, she started out, over the mountains, not minding the snowdrifts and safely reached the doctor whom she brought back with her to Barka.

The doctor examined the swollen hand, drew out from his case some sort of oil and ordered that she should diligently rub it on the hand. If the oil did not help, she was to notify him and he would send some kind of liquid which would surely bring relief. But he did not fool Barka.

She read in his eyes after he had examined her hand and looked significantly at the tenant that no oil or salve would help her. She knew that she would never again rise to her feet a healthy woman. The tenant was right—the bone in her hand was decaying.

The tenant escorted the doctor outside. Matýsek went along chiefly to listen whether the coins he had given the doctor and to which Barka had to add a goodly sum, jingled in his pocket as when he himself had owned them. Barka remained in the room alone.

For a while she sat on the bed not knowing what had become of her thoughts, for her head seemed of a sudden, completely empty. She could not even conceive how Matýsek could possibly live without her. Who would tell him on Sundays what he should wear, whether the fur cloak or the top coat? Who would go beside him wearing the green jacket, to church? With whom would he talk, sip, smoke and who in his old age, would stay with him, wait on him, humor him?

She glanced out of the window into the little orchard where Matýsek, leaving to the tenant the further escorting of the doctor, had paused to give another little drill to the children who to-day for the first time had ventured outside.

It was a beautiful evening. On the summits of the snow-covered mountains glowed crowns of roses. The sky resembled a golden sea gradually paling until the first little stars sparkled forth. They smiled at the mountains, rejoicing with them that soon they would be green and glad when the fir groves and the blue violets would pour forth their fragrance, when they would hear the nightingale sing beside the stream, when from every rock a flower would spring and in every furrow the lark would call. Even the stars are sad when they see nothing but snow, frost and ice.

Barka’s eyes grew misty and great tears dropped on her clasped hands. For her, spring had come for the last time. But instantly her thoughts returned to Matýsek.

“He need not stay here alone. Now that he has a house, any good and capable woman would marry him. It would be best, perhaps, if I myself would select someone for him. It’s a pity, he does not like our tenant. She would never do him any injury.”

Just then a young woman, a neighbor, came running into the orchard. She was returning a hatchet which she had borrowed of Matýsek and began joking with him.

“When are you going to get a divorce from your wife so you can marry me?” she laughed. It was the way all the girls talked with him when they met him alone.

Matýsek imagined that each one was in earnest about it. “You’d like to marry me, wouldn’t you?” He preened himself, seeming to become a head taller. “I believe it. Others would, too. I have to defend myself against them. But just bear in mind, once for all, that I wouldn’t take anyone else than Barka for all of Jerusalem. I wouldn’t have left her even if brides owning seven castles had sent word to me from Prague itself.”

“And what if you’d become a widower?”

“Get out of here!” Matýsek, red with anger, shouted at the pert young thing, stamping his foot and brandishing the hatchet at her. The girl laughed all the more, but had to run away to escape his wrath.

Barka, lying in tears on the bed, felt as if all the nightingales which were preparing to welcome spring in the mountains had begun to sing in her bosom, all the violets which wished to pour out their fragrance in the groves bloomed in her heart. As Matýsek loved her no other man had ever loved a woman. As happy as they two were, no other husband and wife had ever been, even though one were to seek the whole world over.

She bowed her head meekly and owned that here on this earth she had lived long enough in enjoyment, abundance and happiness and that it was just that her portion should now pass cver to another.

“It would be useless to think of marriage for him. He would have no other, no matter what happened. I must arrange it some other way so that all would go on without me,” she said, wiping her eyes. “If only he would not be here when they carry me out. I would have to turn over in my coffin, before they put me in the ground, to know how he would carry on. They say the dead see and hear everything that happens around them before the priest sprinkles their grave. What, dear God, would I see and hear? He will not want to give me up to death and will get anger God Himself by his stubbornness.”

From that time Barka meditated on nothing else than how to contrive to have Matýsek let her go to her grave without too great an ado and too much sorrow and longing for her.

“If I could only last till the time of berries, then I’d take myself off without his knowing,” she prayed again and again. So fervently and intensely did she pray for this that, though her hand was now nothing but a mass of wounds and her body only skin and bones, nevertheless she lived through the spring and summer. Everyone who came to see her parted with her forever, for, leaving, they knew they would never again see her alive. Only Matýsek as yet noticed nothing. He had become accustomed to seeing her on the bed all the time and whenever he became thoughtful over her condition, Barka quickly had some joke ready to lead him out of his mood. Well she knew how to turn everything to its cheery phase. It was a trait that stayed with her to her last moment.

On the afternoon just before Holy Mother’s Day, before August fifteenth, Matýsek was just finishing a cage for the parish priest, who had ordered it for a rare bird. Matýsek was pleased with it and hopped about it constantly. He was reminded again of his desire to contrive some sort of cage not only for birds, but for the wind also.

This time Barka did not reply as usual that there could be no doubt of it that since people had been able to trap the thunder, he surely could carry out his plan for the wind. He observed her silence and stepped closer to her. “What is the matter, our Barka, that you talk so little nowadays?” he asked her, patting her bandaged hand and sadly gazing into her sorrowful eyes.

To-day for the first time he noted that she was pale and troubled. She scarcely had any breath left in her. For the first time, perhaps, he had an inkling of what was in store for her.

“It won’t last long, this way,” Barka consoled him and attempted her customary bright, agreeable smile, which, with effort, she achieved. “This will all change soon. It seems to me I’d get well very quickly if I could only eat some sour berries.”

"You can have all you want of those now. In the grove it looks as if the ground had a red coverlet. I saw them when I went there this morning to cut saplings to make bars for the cage.”

“Those in our grove wouldn’t refresh and strengthen me. If berries are to help me, they must come from Bezděz itself. There every morning the Virgin Mary herself sprinkles them with dew purposely for the sick.”

“Someone from here can go up there tomorrow to get them for you.”

“I too thought of that. I will ask the tenant to let the children go for them.”

“Well, well, they’d be of little use there,” burst out Matýsek. “They wouldn’t get much and would bring you only brush and bad fruit, ripe, unripe, red, greenall in a bunch. You’d hardly relish that sort of thing. And who knows whether the little imps would ever reach Bezděz. They’d ramble where their fancy suited them and would boldly insist they had actually been there. They’d be of no use except to carry the load. Someone wise and dependable should go with them. Do you know what? I myself shall go with them. No one else can put them through their paces as well as I can.”

Barka had him just where she wanted him. He was prepared for a three days’ journey, and in the meantime she could set out on hers—to eternity. Already her mild eye was looking into the depths of that eternity, but her lips still smiled. She had sojourned here long enough in happiness, enjoyment and plenty beside her husband who loved her as no man ever loved a woman.

“You’re the best man on earth, after all,” she whispered to him. “Since we belong to each other, I have never heard a hard word from you. You have never yet done me an injury and you have never once been angry with me. May God bless you for that a hundred thousand times.”

Matýsek smiled contentedly, jingling the money in his pocket. “Neither is such a fine disposition as yours possessed by many women on earth. You know how to be cheerful about everything and you can foretell and promise things before they really happen. Only please stop being so thin and pale! And your lips are so blue and how they quiver!”

And again Matýsek patted the bandaged hand and gazed at her with an uncertain, solicitous gaze as before. I’ll be better at once, and as soon as I eat a few of your berries I’ll run about like a chick.”

“I wish you could do it right now!”

“I shall. I have it all arranged with the Virgin Mary. But when she calls me, I must visit her at Vambeřice. She asked it of me last night in a dream and I promised her I’d go.”

“You shouldn’t have promised her that,” complained Matýsek and hung his head. “You gave us your word with uplifted hand that you’d never again go on a pilgrimage.”

“This time it will be altogether different,” Barka explained. “Our tenant will do everything to suit you much better, and the children, too, are better behaved. Everything will go on as if I were here.”

“Oh, no it won’t, it won’t!” interposed Matýsek and he held on to her feather bed like a child which fears its mother will slip away.

“You’ll see that it will,” Barka smiled at him but within she felt as if she already stood on God’s pillar.

“Just give your orders to the tenant the way you want things done here. She is not a bad woman and will gladly do all to please you and will manage the household well in my absence. She knows that the house and estate will be hers if she serves us both well unto the day of our death, for we have given her our written agreement. Don’t stay at home all the time. Go out to different places and visit the neighbors to learn what is happening among people and out in the world and you’ll have something to laugh at. Go to church also and say a little prayer for me there. It is good for those who are on a journey if we pray for them at home. I, too, shall always remember you in a prayer. Indeed, I’ll do nothing else there than pray for you!”

“Oh, but if you’d only rather stay right here!”

“Keep your things in good order so that they would last. Wear your fur coat whenever you wish, but take care of the top coat, for such a piece of goods you can’t again get in a hurry. Those new shirts, the linen for which I spun for you last winter, you know, those with the little red hearts at the collar band, do not wear them all the time. Put them on only on Sundays and holidays so that you’d not wear them out at once, for then you’d have no memento of the work of my hands—and that would grieve me. Don’t stop your work. Keep at it every day and in that way you will chase away the loneliness most surely. It will be best if you begin right away to work on that cage in which to shut up the wind, and when that wearies you, why, just call the tenant, take a little sip and smoke and have a little game of cards. . . .

“Oh, but I’ll never drink down the longing for you nor smoke it away. I know it can’t be done,” piteously cried poor Matýsek and held on all the more tightly to Barka’s bed covers. Great tears rolled down his cheeks meanwhile and Barka, unable to gaze longer at his grief with dry eyes, relieved herself by weeping with him.

“Do you know what,” she sobbed, throwing her well arm around his neck, “if you will be very lonely and if you can’t get along without me—you need not leave me there alone. Just start out running after me.”

You should have heard into what joyous peals of laughter Matýsek burst when Barka told him how best to punish the great loneliness. He was now willing to let her go on the pilgrimage and no longer offered any objections, for just as soon as he would be the least bit lonesome he would start out to meet her there. Barka would not even be dreaming of it there on her pilgrimage, and suddenly somebody would seize her by the apron and would refuse to let her go. Yes, she would see! He’d show her!

If Matýsek had let the children go alone to Bezděz for the berries, they would have done to a hair exactly what he prophesied to Barka. His journey passed quickly, for he often had to stop to scold the children and give them proper training. Whenever they liked a spot, they would stop and pick, regardless of where it was. Of little use would they have been to Barka. They had no other thought on the trip than where they could eat the greatest amount of strawberries and blackberries. Their cheeks and hands were constantly painted with them. At every wayside well be had to pause with them and make them wash themselves so that people meeting them would not be too horrified at their appearance. He made up his mind to complain to Barka, that all his trials with them during those three days were unequalled in the history of his troubles and that the berries surely should do her much good.

He drove the children ahead of him like a herd of young goats. Each one bore a load so big that not one person, but ten, could have gotten well from eating the berries. They, too, had a story to tell about that journey to Bezděz for they, likewise, had learned many things they had not before known.

Before the tenant could intercept him he rushed with the children pellmell into the room so that Barka some how by the very sight of the abundant harvest could have joy. But he paused on the threshold as if he had grown fast to it. The bed beside the window was empty. Barka was nowhere in the room.

It was some time before the tenant could so far control her tears as to follow him. He asked her nothing nor did he even look at her, though he felt her standing beside him.

“You’re surprised, aren’t you, Matýsek?” she finally addressed him, but her thoughts fairly tore her heart.

“You had hardly gone when the mistress became so well suddenly that she got up. She would not let herself be detained, but set out at once on a pilgrimage. She said she had already talked over with you how you’d arrange things here in case you did not find her at home.”

Barka had died a few hours after Matýsek’s departure. She had felt to a minute the time she was to go and happily she left this world before he returned, just as she had so fervently prayed God might come to pass. She herself had made all arrangements for her funeral, had laid aside the money for it, discussed its details, and prepared for them all. She pleaded with each one in God’s name not to divulge to Matýsek that she would never again return home. She hoped that he would gradually get accustomed to the idea of her remaining so long on the pilgrimage.

He,—to get accustomed to being without her!

The tenant softly led Matýsek to the table, though he made no resistance. She brought him something to eat and cared for him just as she had solemnly promised Barka for her own soul’s salvation that she would do! Matýsek did not respond to her words. Leaving the food untouched, he sat quietly, motionless, with eyes staring at the bed as if there were not a drop of blood in him.

No coercion could make him go to bed. All night he sat beside the table looking with vacant gaze at the empty bed.

When the tenant came to him the next day, he was still sitting at the table. It seemed to her he had grown twenty years older and that his hair had suddenly become white. He turned and spoke to her.

“Too much is too much!” he said in a queer hoarse voice. “To go away and stay away,—whoever heard of such a thing? But since she wanted to go, let her stay there. I will do my work here. I’ll get along without her.”

“You are right,” the tenant lauded him. “Let her stay on her pilgrimage if she wants to. We, again, shall stay here. If you are grieved that she left, you’ll punish her best by not showing it in the least. Next time, she’ll think it over more carefully before she sets out for some place. Just have a little drink and wash down your trouble.”

And the tenant brought Matýsek glasses, cards and his pipe just exactly as Barka had ordered her to do. Matýsek quickly seized upon the glass, cards and the pipe with eager hands. But the glass remained full, the pipe went out while he held it in his mouth and of a sudden he did not even know how to name the cards. Alas, he had told her he could not get along without her and yet she had gone and left him. It was no wonder that again he never lay down in bed and remained sitting at the table all night, muttering in a strange voice, “What is too much is too much!”

In his work he fared no better. He set himself to carving, cutting, glueing, but as soon as he tried to put things together nothing seemed to fit. Her merry smile was lacking, her loving words, too, which always made everything clear to him and, when his memory wandered, always led him back to the right path. Now that she was not there to admire and encourage, everything was all confusion to him and no one could seem to straighten things out. Not even a miserable broom was he able to make now, for what he put together in no wise resembled the others.

“What is too much is too much,” he whimpered, in his little corner from which he could see so well to the bed. “Until Barka comes back I’ll not be able to do a thing worth while, because of grief that she left me in spite of everything.”

And idly he remained sitting in his place hour after hour, never taking his eyes from the bed, as if by looking hard he could force her to suddenly appear there at last.

Sometimes he rose and went to the clock to push it ahead so that it would go faster, but after a while he again came back with downcast head. At other times he seized the chalk as if he wished to make marks on the door each day Barka was gone, to count up as he had before, how long before she returned from the pilgrimage. Often he had the door open ready to go to see if she were not already returning, but he never carried out this intention. He pretended to himself that he fully believed in the pilgrimage, but he must have known that she had undertaken a journey from which no one has yet returned, regardless of how much those left longing push the clocks ahead to hasten the moment of reunion or how many chalk marks they make on the door.

Matýsek persuaded himself of his self-deception that Barka had gone to Vambeřice only before others. When he stepped before his God he acknowledged the truth. He no longer sat among the married men in the pews at the right, but cowered in the corridor among the beggars who have no one or nothing. There he fell on his knees, pressed the rosary to his lips and those , who stood near him heard nothing else during the entire mass except his whispered prayer. “For my dead Barbara, my dead Barbara—”

But when he left the church, he again tried somehow to talk himself out of the fact of her death and whomever he met he asked if they had not met Barka somewhere, and scolded to them that what was too much really was too much, that his wife refused to come back home from the pilgrimage.

And the people did not seek to change him, but assented that it was indeed a burden to have such a roaming wife. Many advised him to leave her where she was and not let her into the house even if she would come back instantly. He nodded in agreement and looked forward to her pleading to be let in. He made up his mind that he would let her beg a long time at the door before he would open it. But—whenever he entered the room where, near the window, stood her vacant bed from which she had smiled at him so earnestly that his work went rapidly and perfectly—like play in fact; from which she had gazed at him so happily that he had been able to do whatever people asked him, he sank again into his chair gazing dully and confusedly into space and his poor mind could not cope with what Fate had sent him.

One morning he arose with brightened brow. It was Sunday and the bells were just ringing for early mass.

“Quickly bring me from the closet the shirt with the red hearts and my blue top-coat also,” he ordered the tenant in his accustomed voice and manner.

She was much amazed, for since Barka’s death he had never once worn the top-coat. He was taking care of it just as she had instructed him to do and the shirts with the hearts, which had been spun by her own hands, he cherished particularly. Yes, he recalled to a hair every word of hers spoken that evening before she started him on his journey to Bezděz.

“Don’t wait for me to-day from church,” he said to the tenant.

“And why not?”

“I can’t stand it here any longer. I’m going to punish this longing. I shall set out on the road to Vambeřice. Barka told me if I should get lonely while she was gone, that I should start out to meet her, so I’m going. Won’t she stare when I suddenly appear before her and say, ‘Here I am, our Barka.’”

The tenant thought that he really meant to carry out this oft-repeated threat to lock the door in case Barka should come, and nodding assent to his plans, she gave him his rosary and cane.

Long she looked after him as he walked alone. Tears filled her eyes. She liked to watch Barka and Matýsek walk together to church, for one could tell by the very way they stepped along that they liked to be together here on earth. Poeple laughed, to be sure, and let drop a whisper here and there that they were weak in thoughts, but so few sins as those two had committed surely were to be found in no other household in the entire community.

In vain did the tenant await Matýsek’s return to dinner. Her children came running home from church without him all breathless, heated up and frightened. Matýsek, they said, had knelt down in the corridor as usual, and holding his rosary was praying for “dead Barbara,” but when, after the mass, all the people stood up, he alone did not arise. When the others had gone out from the church he alone did not leave. They tapped him on the shoulder, but he did not move, only gazed at them strangely. A terror seized the children and they began to scream. The people came running up, picked up Matýsek, tried to bring him back to life, but he remained rigid.

Matýsek had truly gone to find Barka. He could no longer wait. He had punished the longing. And it was no wonder. What is too much, really is too much! . . .


  1. In the title of the story here given Světlá has used the name “Barbara” from which “Barka” as used in the story is a derivative or abbreviation.
Copyright.svg PD-icon.svg This work is a translation and has a separate copyright status to the applicable copyright protections of the original content.
Original:

This work was published before January 1, 1925, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.

 
Translation:

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1925.


The author died in 1948, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 70 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.