Czechoslovak Stories/For the Land of His Fathers
FOR THE LAND OF HIS FATHERS
BY JAN KLECANDA
“Father!” sounded the voice of the young master of the estate from the courtyard.
“Well, what is it?” responded his old father with an ill-humored question which expressed no pleasant anticipation of what the “young master” would have to say.
“Oh, well, nothing! I just thought I’d mention a certain matter so you’d not be too frightened when the gentlemen come to-morrow,” the younger man said somewhat irresolutely, and throwing away the ax with which he had been splitting wood, he straightened up from his work as if preparing to ward off an attack.
“What’s that?—‘gentlemen’ to see us? What kind of ‘gentlemen’? From the courts? For the execution of a mortgage?” the questions fairly rushed from the fear tightened throat of the old man, who, though in his sixties, was still stalwart.
“Why, what are you thinking of?” the young man waved his hand, rather glad that his father had immediately suspected something evil and that, therefore, his report would affect him the less. “The German gentlemen from the factory will come here to inspect the place.”
“And what have they to inspect here? Has some thing been lost from the factory and has suspicion fallen on you?” The words were as if ejected from the lips of the old man as he leaped close to the fence on which he leaned the better to look closely into his son’s eyes.
“What wild guesses you are making to day. Am I a ruffian or thief to have that sort of visitations? And if they did have it in for me, they surely wouldn’t announce their visit beforehand.’
“Of course, of course!” assented the old man. “Such a visit, though, is as rare as if it fell from heaven, even though the devil may bring them. You don’t have an idea where or why, and a gendarme lands before you with handcuffs, and the mayor but God save us from that!”
“There, there! Don’t worry about the gentlemen from the courts and their helpers!”
“Well, then, tell what’s happened and don’t torture me! It won’t be anything pleasant, I’m sure, for these German “gentlemen” never cross the threshold of a poor man to bring him anything good!”
“Well-you’ll see! You yourself say, “There is no rule without an exception, and this time it’s proven true. Money is something good, isn’t it?”
“Money? I should say so!” assented the old man, delighted, but in the next instant he burst out with another doubt. “But why should the gentlemen run after you?”
“Oh, that’s all a part of it!” the young man drew himself up boastfully. “Only that they won’t run, but will come in style in a carriage and then I will ride away with them!”
“You will ride?—That’s getting better all the time, boy! When our rich men give one a ride, then it's sure to end well! Well, hurry up and speak!”
“Speak, speak! But you don’t let a man get in a word. Well, then listen. I’ve made an agreement with the gentleman that I’ll sell him this hut.” The young man spoke rapidly as if to have the confession out.
“What? What’s that you said, in God’s name?” shrieked the old man and leaped up as if a hornet had stung him.
“Well—now—I’m speaking Czech and loud enough, too,” growled the son peevishly, angered by his father’s terror, which augured nothing good.
“But still I did not understand you, Joseph! Say it again, I beg of you,” pleaded the older man in an appeasing tone.
“Well, I was saying that I’m going to sell the homestead to the gentleman. He needs a place for a building. He needs the garden and also the field beyond it.”
“Needs? Needs? And what is it to you that he needs it?” the old man echoed in a threatening voice, and it seemed as if his figure, standing erect on the other side of the fence, had grown in height.
“Well, you needn’t yell at me as if I were a mere boy, or half the village will come running here,” the son said soothingly. “It’s nothing to me what he needs, but it is something to me that he is offering a thousand more than the place is really worth, and a thousand extra is mighty good money these days.”
The old man did not speak at once, but pushed his shaggy cap back on his head and with his calloused hand wiped off the sweat which had burst out on his forehead. Then he stepped to the gate which he pushed open with his foot and entered the yard. He stalked towards his son with energetic strides and grasped his stick firmly as if he intended to use it.
Pausing before his son, in deep yet sharp tones he uttered, “A thousand—you are right—is good money, providing it is honest profit!”
“And isn’t this honest, when I sell what is mine?” the young man defended himself rebelliously, irritated by his father's opposition.
The old man vainly gasped for breath enough to answer. His face turned red, then paled and purpled with emotion and wrath. Joseph saw his father's struggle, but in order to avoid looking at him, he turned away, picked up his ax and started at his work again. “Leave that alone, now, Joseph! It won’t run away!” the old man forced himself to be gentle when he could again regain his speech. “Let’s go into the house and talk it over."
His son, however, frowned, but still did not dare raise any objection. He threw the ax away, kicked fiercely at the pile of wood until it scattered in all directions and then followed his father, muttering in vexation, “A man has to go into a conference just when he has so much to do that he doesn’t know what to leap at first.”
The father, acting as if he did not see his son’s anger, went to the house, opened the door and stooping, entered. The young man followed but he did not need to stoop to enter.
When they had stepped inside, the old man threw his cap on the table behind which he seated himself on the bench near the wall. The young man remained standing near the door, crushing his cap in his hands in sullen indecision.
“Well, come on and sit down, Joseph,” the old man urged in the most agreeable tones he could force from his throat. “You are the master here and it is not fitting that you should stand at the door like some passing vagabond!”
“So there! I’m the master, am I?” said the son in cutting tones, and approaching the table, sat down sprawlingly on the chair. He gazed at his father in a challenging manner as if he wished to frighten him and give himself more courage.
“Master, to be sure!” repeated the old man. “Haven’t I always shown respect for you as the master of the place, even though you are the son and I the father? You are master of all here except of my little reserve plot,” he uttered the last words with distinct empbasis as if he were treading on a loud pedal for each syllable, “and what you command, shall be done. May it all be worthy!”
“And don’t I look after the homestead as well as can be done? Haven’t I grubbed out of this dry soil every bit that it possibly could be lashed into giving? And won’t I give you all that is written down in the contract?” the son struck out at his father.
“Don’t scold me that way. I don’t want any quarrels. I say, not an egg nor a liter of milk have you or Apolena cheated me out of.—May God repay her for it! And you labor and save all honor to you both!” gravely spoke the aged man.
“Well, then what’s the matter?” violently hurled back the son, adding quickly, “And all this toiling—what’s it all for? You can’t make a living on it. It will sooner raise thorns and weeds than grain enough for a loaf of bread, without even speaking of koláče. So, what to do with it?”
“May God not punish you for those hard words,” cried the father in deep grief. “Honestly has this soil supported us and before us our grandfather and before him all our forefathers. From time out of mind the Nešněras have occupied this land and have provided dowers for their daughters and portions for the sons, as well as has anyone else and yet there was always bread enough remaining for all. And you are not able to make a living here when you had no debts to pay and are the only child?”
“Make a living or not—that isn’t the question! I don’t want to. I’ve had enough of plodding over these clods. And why shouldn’t I sell when he wants it and will pay well for it?”
“Dear Christ Jesus!” sighed the old man. “When you talk this way and only chatter of money, we never will get to an agreement.”
“So you see, father, it’s best not to talk at all. You know I’ve inherited a head as stubborn as yours and what gets sown in it, you can’t thresh out with a club,” the son reminded him almost gently.
But that gentleness which was forced and artificial was like oil poured on a fire. The old man leaped up, and swinging his heavy cane over his head, screamed, “If I knew it would help, if it’s to be a question of your head or my stick, I’d—,”
The door creaked and the son’s wife with their two boys entered. The old man, seeing his daughter-in-law with the children, quickly laid his stick on the table. He honored in his son the father of a family and did not wish to cause unpleasantness for the children.
“What are you coming here for? Who called you in?” the young man burst out angrily at his wife.
“We surely belong here without being called in, don’t we? And your wife can hear what you have to say to your father?” the mistress of the home calmly answered.
“Right you are, Apolena. Just come here and let me hear what you think of this. And you boys also. It’s a matter that concerns your inheritance!”
The master irritably crushed his cap down on his head and arose, intending to leave.
“Stay here, Joseph,” said the old man mildly, yet with a tone of firm command, “when I honor the father in you, you too, must honor the grandfather in the presence of my grandchildren. And after all, it’s the concern of the entire family. This land, in the name of our Christ Jesus, does not belong to you alone, but to all the Nešněras who, God granting, will yet succeed us!”
“Oh, then talk as much as you please, but I say it’s all useless,” said the master and carelessly and with an air of resignation he sat down again.
“Well, then, what do you say to it, Apolena?” the old man turned to his daughter-in-law, his voice shaken by emotion. “Or didn’t you know, either, that Joseph intends to sell this ‘hut’-as he called it to-day—to that German?”
“In God’s name, father!” burst forth the young woman and tears suddenly filled her eyes. “I have implored him on my knees and with clasped hands. I’ve said, ‘Joseph, day and night until my limbs give way under me will I toil if only you will not drive us out of here.’ But all pleading is in vain. Sooner could you squeeze a tear out of a rock!”
“So much has he hardened against his own family!” bitterly complained the old man. “And for a miserable thousand he has—sold himself!”
“And we’ll have an easier living! After all, I will stay on my own soil, for I’m to look after the place for the German master,” the son defended himself in some embarrassment.
“On your own soil? That will be wholly different. Now you are master here, then you will be a master’s servant or lackey! And you’ll serve by the hour! When it suits him, he’ll drive you out. And you’ll leave the homestead to which cling the blood and sweat of your forefathers. So you wanted an easier living? And you seek it at a German’s? My boy, we of the mountains are not born for, nor do we fit an easy life. What God gave, take, even though it be little—there will be enough. But from a German, it is as if you accepted water in a sieve!”
“But it’s to be by written contract! Am I a child that I’m to be fooled by empty words? You’ve heard that I’m to go in a carriage with them to the notary and there it will all be properly recorded.”
“What will be recorded there? Your shame for everlasting memory? Listen, Joseph,”—the old man spoke almost majestically, raising himself earnestly from the bench,—“your aged father, grown gray in honest toil, is speaking to you. I, too, might have had an easier living. Temptation came to me, also, but when I saw you growing up into such a fine, stalwart youth, I said to myself, ‘No, the Nešněras must not die out here on this land of my fathers! Look, you could cut into this palm of mine, so hardened it is by labor. And for whom? For you and yours! And why? Because this land is sacred to me, because I know how my father and grandfather toiled here. That was in the times when the overlord’s feudal lash hissed over them. This piece of land, because it lay so close to the castle, always pierced the eyes of the nobles. They wanted to buy us out—drive us away from here. Much blood our fathers shed, but they did not yield a single span of the land.—And see, Joseph, it was only in that way that we have preserved our Czech nation by defending every inch of our native land in a tooth and nail struggle against our enemy! To-day the nation extols us. Yes, in a thousand years they will still bless us that we—simple peasants and cottagers devoting our lives lovingly to our soil—preserved the land untainted for our children!
Wonderfully touching, yes, even terrible was the look on the grandfather’s face as he stood there livid, the muscles of his face torn, his gray hair disarranged and pasting itself on his forehead with the perspiration that poured from him. The two boys looked in terror first at their grandfather, then at their father who sat defiantly with his gaze fastened on the floor.
Apolena wiping her tear-dimmed eyes on her sleeve, approached her husband and laying her hand on his shoulder, said in a voice of emotion thrilling with deep anxiety, “Father, husband—look! It is your own father! You will kill him thus! Is this the way to repay him for all his care, in his old age?”
“Don’t I respect my father? And do I want to injure him? He, too, will be better off in a new place than now—”
“What? What’s that you said?” screamed the father and with the agility of a youth he leaped in front of his son. “I am to be with you? In a new place? And do you think, Joseph, that you’d drive even me out of my own little reserve plot and that I, too, will let myself be bought? No, I thank God now, that I remembered to keep a little corner for myself though I never dreamed it might come to this!”
“Well, father, when we go, you go with us. A sale is a sale, and there all ‘reserve rights’ cease,” said the son in a calmer voice.
“If you want to sell your land, sell it,” responded the old man with cutting coldness. “Sell the roof over your head, sell your land on which you might have rested, sell all that your fathers and forefathers preserved for you for hundreds of years, but what is mine you shall not sell, do you understand?” and in the speech of the old man there sounded such a threat that Joseph dropped his eyes and his wife shivered in sudden terror.
“Husband of mine, in the name of Christ Jesus,” she moaned, twining her arms around his neck, “such a thing as this has never come between us!”
“And am I to blame for it? Why are you moaning and wailing here?” Joseph shouted as he pushed her away so roughly that she staggered.
There was no need to notice it, for Joseph in reality had not struck his wife. Old Nešněra might not have noticed it ordinarily, for he never meddled in their affairs. But to-day, Apolena was on his side and the deed offered a welcome opportunity for him to rebuke his son.
“So my son Joseph beats his wife because she takes the part of her father-in-law?” he shrieked. “Did you ever see me raise my hand against your mother?”
The young master feeling that in this instance a wrong was being done to him, for he had not even thought of striking his wife, jumped up, seized his cap, and rushed out of the room. Out in the yard, he paused, lifted his cap, and ran his hand over his brow as if wiping away the perspiration and then, spitting in disgust, walked out towards the highway.
In domestic quarrels, the sole consolation and refuge of the one who forsakes the battlefield is the tavern. And so Nešněra, too, directed his steps to the inn to drown the entire ugly occurrence in beer.
At home, for a while after his departure, a painful silence reigned. The old man felt that he had wronged his son in his last speech and for that reason he was slightly shaken in his own stand, so firm heretofore. But Nešněra was too honest a man not to own frankly that he was at fault.
“You know, Apolenka,” he said after a moment, “Joseph did not even intend to strike you. It was only an accident—”
“But he didn’t even hurt me, father,” eagerly the wife defended him. “He just swung his arm—”.
“Well, then, praise be to God, that from that quarter the clouds are driven away,” the old man rejoiced. “Now, if only we can chase the shadows away in the other matter. But you are with me in that and you will not permit the land which bore so many Nešněras to go into a stranger’s hands. You see, Apolenka, you, too, are of peasant origin and though you were not born under this roof, you feel with me what it would mean to have our property fall into alien hands!”.
“Well, what’s up. Why are you rushing about with your eyes on top of your head, as if you were hunting a midwife?” so one of young Nešněra's friends at the inn greeted him while the others burst into merry laughter.
“Oh, nothing!” Joseph disposed of the inquisitive one peevishly. “Had a little squabble at home.”
“With whom? With your wife or the old father?” asked another.
“Well, since you must know,” Nešněra turned to his interlocutor, examining him a few moments as if to decide whether it was worth while to answer him, “with both of them!” “Ho! ho, poor fellow! That surely is a hot bath when not only one’s wife but father as well rip into one,” laughed a young man, but the other, an older man, spoke gravely.
“Well, let it be, Frank. It’s always better if the wife stands with the old father than against him. And especially at Josifek’s house. I don’t know what they quarrelled about, but I’ll wager the old man wasn’t any farther off from the truth than you could make in one jump.”
Joseph looked at the speaker disapprovingly, spat through his teeth, shoved his cap further back on his head, and having seated himself, emptied half the glass which the innkeeper placed before him.
“And to prove that I’m a fortune-teller,” cried the one who had been called ‘Frank,’ “I’ll tell you the cause of the trouble! It was about the homestead, wasn’t it? I’ll bet the old man raised the devil, didn’t he?”
Old Halama, the neighbor who had previously taken the part of Joseph’s father, looked searchingly at the young master of the estate, and when he nodded assent to Frank’s “guess,” he arose from his chair. Halama’s face had become grave and yet simultaneously there appeared a wild cast to his features which an artist might have caught, but which it is impossible to describe.
“What is that, Joseph? Is it really true? Some people said it, but I didn’t want to believe it!”
“And why didn’t you want to believe it?” young Nešněra braced himself as if for a fight. “Hold on there! Don’t get into that pose with me! You were still a lad looking for mushrooms when I was a comrade of your father’s,” neighbor Halama admonished Joseph. “But if you want to hear what I didn’t want to believe, I’ll tell you without stuttering. I couldn’t believe that a Nešněra would ever sell the estate on which the blood and sweat as well as the blessings and prayers of generations rest! Do you know, Joseph, what your ancestors suffered, what your father struggled through? And especially your grandfather, God grant him everlasting glory! The German lords were determined to possess your estate, saying it would just suit their needs. They made him offers—promises—but he never gave in. Then they worked up a plot making him out a rebel or something and put him in the dark dungeon of the castle. Each day they took him out to torture him, stretched him on the rack, and after each infliction of terrible physical suffering, they asked him, ‘Will you sell by fair means?’ But he always replied, ‘If you call these “fair means,” I’ll wait till there are fairer.’ And they would have beaten him to death, I believe, if the good Lord Himself hadn’t decided to take a hand in things, for once, during the execution of one of their fiendish orders of torture, the Director himself was struck by lightning. The Countess fainted dead away.”
“Well and what of it?” cynically asked young Nešněra. “Because my old folks were stubborn headed and didn’t understand what was to their own disadvantage, should we be so, too? If someone wants to buy my land and pays well, I can buy elsewhere and it’s just as good!”
The neighbors looked breathlessly at old Halama to hear what he would say to that. Some thought that young Nešněra was in the right, others felt, but could not express why they felt, he was wholly wrong.
Old Halama seemed to sense the gravity of the moment. He lost himself in thought for a while, appearing to look off into a corner somewhere and a considerable time elapsed before he spoke.
“You see, Joseph, these are things which are hard to explain by mere reasoning if the heart doesn’t listen. The right feeling has to be here under the vest. These are strange things. Perhaps a learned man could find the proper paragraph in books to cover the case, but I don’t know any more than the Ten Commandments and what I have written in my heart, ‘Honor thy father and thy mother’—and I do honor their work, their sufferings! They did not bequeath me very much, but I value it because it was inherited from them. Even my very name, Halama, which isn’t very pretty, I honor. My great-grandfather received that name from the German overlords because he was indomitable and refused to kiss the lash with which they beat him. And that name given by the nobility to insult him has become my pride. None of my sons is ashamed of his father, even if he is only a Halama—”
“Eh, those are only speeches.” Nešněra waved his hand vexedly, drowning his discomfiture in a glass.
“Speeches they are, but not empty ones! No evasions, you understand?” Halama would not permit himself to be interrupted once having gotten into the current. “And it is true that you can do as you please with your own property. You’re not sinning against any legal ordinance nor can anyone send you to court for it. But you are committing a sin against your own people on the land of your fathers. What would become of us if everyone renounced his land as easily as you have done? You get rid of it in order to gain a few dollars, another to avoid some misfortune—”
“And soon the Germans would buy up in that way our very mountains beneath our feet,” echoed in warm assent Vavřík, one of the young men. “I felt at once that Joseph wasn’t doing the right thing. And what’s worst of all about it, he’s selling the ground for a German school! What do we need of it here?”
“Well, is it to your disadvantage that you know German?” Joseph turned on Vavřík.
“No. It’s good to know languages, and the more a person knows the better it is for him. But, for all that, I’m not going to send my children to a German school. No—not for anything! Time enough to learn it when they grow up and go among people as I did. And for that matter, I never studied it. In extreme cases one needs it in trading. But a German school? It isn’t that the German teacher instructs in the language but that he teaches the children to think and feel like Germans. And do you know what that means? You don’t, but I’ll tell you. It means that some day your boy will be ashamed of his father and of his language and will probably spit upon your grave because he didn’t have a better father.”
“Ho! ho! ho! It surely won’t be quite so bad as that,” Jachymek checked him. “You’re just saying that because you envy Nešněra since he is to have a neat profit, and not you. What kind of misfortune is a German school? It doesn’t mean that you’ll all have to become Germans and even though it did what of it? The master wants it because he is a master and a good one. Why didn’t some Czech build us a factory here?”
“And so you’re going to kiss his hand because he pays you your well-earned wages?”
“That I will, if the time comes!”
“And you don’t realize, do you, that that same hand, through the erection of the factory, struck out of your reach your former greater earnings? You don’t seem to figure it out for yourself that from your honest labor you barely eke out a miserable living, while he from your toil makes big capital? And for that paltry wage you want to sell him your blood as well?” queried Vavřík excitedly
“Say what you please, but a master is a master and he whose bread you eat—well—you know,” Jachymek defended himself. “I don’t blame Nešněra. He will make money by the deal, will better himself and children, so where’s the harm?”
“Well, may it bring him a blessing,” old Halama ended the conversation, and started another topic in order to conclude a profitless quarrel during which the heart in his body could hardly keep from quivering to pieces.
It was Sunday and work on the fields and in the factory rested. The inhabitants of the village, in part factory hands and in part peasants or really householders who, in addition to their labors on the fields, worked part time in the factory or at home behind the loom, stood around on thresholds with their pipes in their mouths, waiting till the “gentlemen” rode by. It was generally known what would take place at the Nešněras’ to-day, and after the custom of people, some condemned, while others commended the young householder for selling his cottage for a school and his lands for the extension of the nobility’s park.
Just as had happened yesterday at the inn, so to day in the village square, various opinions were heard regarding the German school, but of those who found a means of livelihood at the factory, not one ventured to say aloud just what he thought.
Only Makovec, one of those hard mountaineer heads, which when it makes up its mind to push through its ideas, would even have charged a stone wall at full speed, publicly spoke out against it, and when they tried to pacify him, saying someone would inform on him at the German master’s, he grew even more furious.
“Yes, indeed! It’s a mighty sad thing that we’re all bought up, for we’re ready to sell one another if the ‘master’ smiles at us or places us on a better job. There didn’t use to be such corruption among us not even when we were bondmen under the imported German nobility!”
“That’s because money is everything now,” vigorously assented Halama, who had joined the group. “For money Joseph is selling the roof over his father’s head!”
“Well, we haven’t yet had a drink on the earnest money. Old Nešněra won’t let it come to pass, you’ll see!”
While there were plenty of opinions and knowing discussions in the village, at the Nešněras’ there was absolute silence. The mistress put the house in order and walked silently from room to room, imploringly trying at times to catch the eye of her husband with her own tearful ones.
She dared not speak. She knew, too, that she could accomplish nothing by words when Joseph had made up his mind about anything. The old man, also, was as if dumb. His face wore a scowl and the son and father passed by each other like dog and cat.
Finally the carriage came rumbling along. The “gentlemen” were coming. The villagers, according to the degree dependent on the factory, greeted them more or less humbly or indifferently, and watched, with pipes in mouths, the passing “nobility.” When the carriage stopped and the factory proprietor, Schlosser, with his manager stepped out and entered the gate, the neighbors came from all sides and trooped after them. Halama, Vavřík, Makovec and also Jachymek and a host of others were all there.
The factory owner, Schlosser, expecting a showy greeting, was a little surprised that no one came out to meet him. Joseph was ashamed, though ordinarily he would have gone out on the threshold of his little court to welcome every guest. But to-day he barely opened the door with some timidity and bowed them in.
Schlosser entered with his hat on his head, the manager after him, and then the rest crowded into the doors as tightly as they could.
The factory owner with the affable condescension of an indulgent ruler to his subjects, made a gesture with his hand towards both old and young Nešněra.
“Well, how is it, old man? Did we come to an agreement?” he asked with a hard foreign accent.
“The gentleman hasn’t been making any propositions to me,” answered old Nešněra, gazing with significant intimation at Schlosser’s hat until the latter grasped the reproach suggested and removed it from his head.
“Good, good!” nodded Nešněra contentedly. “We have on the walls pictures of our sainted protectors and they, at least, deserve that all who enter should bare their heads in greeting!”
A rustle of delight was heard from the doorway.
Schlosser, a little disconcerted, turned vexedly towards the door and asked young Nešněra, “What does this gaping crowd want here?”
“I say, sir,” the old man answered for his son, “they are not ‘a gaping crowd.’ They are neighbors. It’s an old custom here that when transactions like this are taking place, we never close the doors before our neighbors. After all, you know, it’s the affair of the entire community whether the estate is to be occupied by one of our own kind of people or some alien!”
Schlosser bit his lip, but he did not desire to quarrel with the old man.
“And you? Will you keep your agreement and ride with us?”
“I’ll go, gracious sir. I’m only waiting. It’s no use talking to the old man here. After it’s all under the seal, he’ll give in.”
“In order that you two traffickers in human souls may know at once just where you stand,” screamed out the old man, “I’llenlighten you! I have things so arranged that if I should not get along with the young people under the same roof, the old drying-kiln over there and the potato field near it will be mine to the day of my death. And from that I will not part even for a thousand, as surely as there is one God above me!”
The factory owner had too good a knowledge of human nature not to realize that all talking was useless here. Old Nešněra stood there, pale, with starting eyes and dishevelled gray hair. He was terrible to look upon. Even Joseph felt very uneasy, and eagerly accepted the master’s invitation to depart by reaching for his hat, which was close at hand.
But before the young man could step to the door, his father blocked the way. Old Nešněra in the agony of his heart, perhaps hardly knowing what he was doing, fell on his knees before his son and flung both arms around his knees.
“Joseph, my son!” he cried in a heart-breaking voice. “For the living God, have mercy on my gray head, on yourself and on your own family! Apolenka, children, kneel and implore him! Surely he has not a heart of stone, since a Czech mother gave him birth! Why, it surely cannot be that one Nešněra would heap so much shame on all the rest!”
Both the little boys, not even understanding what it was all about, knelt down beside their grandfather. Apolena, sobbing aloud, leaned against the casement of the door. The neighbors, deeply moved and frowning, pressed forward.
Young Nešněra stood there in painful anxiety and only at Schlosser’s beckoning did he recover.
“Let go of me, father, and don’t make any scenes! It’s all useless!”
“I will not let go,” shrieked the old man wildly.
“Let go by fair means!” threateningly shouted the son, incensed that he should be forced into such a humiliating position in the presence of the “master.”
“Neither by fair means nor foul!”
But young Nešněra, though he was smaller than his father, with his iron hands tore loose his father’s hands clinging to his knees, and pushed him away so roughly that the old man tottered and fell to the floor. Then he quickly followed Schlosser and the manager out to the courtyard and they hastened to enter the carriage.
Old Nešněra picked himself up from the floor and with clenched fists, flying locks of gray, looking more like a specter than a man, ran out after his son. The neighbors who had stepped aside for the gentlemen intercepted his way, fearing that something would happen.
“Let me go, let me go! I’d rather kill him with my own hands than to have him—” ejaculated the old man in a voice resembling the roaring of an animal more than the tones of a human being. “You’re going, Joseph, really going? There is no God above us if you get there safely! And if you sell, my curse goes with you! Do you hear?”
The factory owner urged the coachman to whip up the horses, but, unfortunately, something slipped loose on the harness and it was necessary to first fix it. The screams of Nešněra frightened the horses.
“See—see? God does not wish it!” shrieked the old man, half mad with sorrow.
Vainly the neighbors tried to mollify him. He neither heard nor saw, only fought to pull himself free of their grasp. And when the carriage started to drive away, Nešněra by superhuman strength threw aside those who stood in his way and, seizing a big stone in the yard, threw it after the receding carriage.
A loud scream was heard—Nešněra had struck the manager—but the horses plunged ahead.
“He gave it to him! Lord, but he struck him right! Good for him! Pity he didn’t hit the right one!” these and similar exclamations were heard all around.
Nešněra, after this explosion, was like one broken and burst into loud sobbing, refusing to be quieted even after the neighbors had led him into the room.
The evening of the same day a constable came and led away the old man in irons. He made no resistance. Many things had happened that day. Nešněra in grief over his son’s treachery had gone to the inn which he had not visited in many years and in his wrath had drunk there beyond temperate measure. He had bitterly reviled his son and had cursed the laws and him who made them. Rumors of his speeches had reached Schlosser when he returned at noon, bringing Joseph with him as his guest. The factory owner rejoiced with glee that he had so cheaply gotten rid of the obstinate old man. His manager who was quite seriously wounded, remained in the city. And here was a new crime, the crime of insulting His Majesty, the Emperor, which the old man in his wild grief had unthinkingly committed without consideration of consequences.
The factory owner knew he could find enough people who would act as witnesses, and it was he who had sent for the constable.
Hard times came to both of the Nešněras. The old man was locked in jail. The young man had lost all standing both in the village and in his own home. Even those who might have acted as he did now charged him with being the cause of his father’s misfortune.
Half the village was secured to testify to this or that crime which the elder Nešněra had committed. Many refused to know anything of what had happened, but when they were threatened with punishment for swearing falsely they talked. There was enough testimony without requiring that of the son. But when he was called he did not dare meet his father’s eyes. After they told him he could take advantage of the beneficence of the law not requiring a son to testify against a father, he arose to depart.
That instant his gaze fell on his aged father. The rough mountaineer could not control his emotion. He leaped forward, fell on his knees before his father, and weeping, begged for forgiveness. The people in the courtroom cried, the witnesses, the judge and even the lawyers were touched, but old Nešněra remained like a rock.
“You sold it?” he asked coldly. “Answer—did you sell?”
And when the son dumbly assented, the old man pushed him away so that he staggered towards the bench occupied by the witnesses.
“Go then, go! Accursed! I no longer have a son, nor you a father! But when they let me go from here—”
He was not permitted to speak further. They led his son away from the courtroom. This cruel scene impressed the judge and jury unfavorably, but in the course of the trial, they again were inclined towards the stubborn old man who had wished to preserve his inherited estate for his descendants. Their decree was fairly light. He was sentenced to ten months in prison. When the attorney explained to Nešněra that it was absolutely the minimum sentence for two such serious crimes, the convicted man announced that he accepted the penalty and was ready to suffer it.
Those ten months sped as if in winged flight. Old Nešněra, returning one day to his native village, was nearly petrified to find a new building in the place where his little home used to stand.
The old man, bent by grief and suffering, straightened up fiercely at the unexpected sight.
“Oh, is that you, Nešněra? Welcome home,” sounded a hearty voice. “We didn’t expect you till day after to-morrow.”
Nešněra silently extended his hand to Halama and with the other pointed to the building.
“It makes your eyes bulge, doesn’t it? That’s the new school—a German one! You’ll see the inscription. Schlosser made haste speeded up the building of it! In a few days it’s to be consecrated. And say, old comrade! There’ll be children in plenty there over half of the village. The factory hands and many of the others in some way employed by our German ‘gentlemen’ got a sort of insight that it was vain to resist!”
“And that’s what my son did for you people! You must all curse him for it!”
“Well, I haven’t yet heard anyone praise him.”
“And what about my reserved portion and cottage? Have they torn that down, too?” Nešněra asked in menacing tones.
“No, they didn’t do that. Your son had it fixed up. Wants to get reconciled with you. And your daughter-in-law saw to it that everything was made as attractive as possible for you. They themselves live here in the school. Joseph has a sign over his door, ‘School Janitor,’ but it’s in German, in big letters, ‘Schuldiener.’ You’ll be surprised!”
“Well, I’ll not see it,” said the old man, but immediately fell into thought. A queer idea flashed into his head.
“So you say the school’s to be consecrated in a week? Well, I won’t carry the holy water for them during the ceremony.” Without any words of parting, he left Halama, entered the yard and directed his course straight to the old drying kiln which now was newly whitewashed and tastefully prepared inside.
“Joseph, Schuldiener,” cried Halama in muffled tones, tapping at the window. “Your old father has returned and has gone to his ‘cottage.’”
There was a movement inside the room and Apolenka came running out to greet her father-in-law and take him to his new abode. Joseph did not yet have the courage.
A peculiar change came over old Nešněra. He never had been very loquacious, but from the time he returned from prison he never spoke a word with anyone. He would pat his daughter-in-law and grandchildren on the head, but he never offered his hand to his son, and when the latter tried to make friends with him he always turned away.
“A silent madman!” they repeated throughout the village. “Poor fellow! His grief went to his head. And no wonder!”
“But what will it be when he sees the celebration of the school consecration?”
“He won’t see it! He’ll lock himself in his room and won’t crawl out.”
The great day of the school consecration arrived. The factory proprietor, Schlosser, exerted every effort to arrange a big celebration. He distributed an immense number of flags throughout the community, mainly the black-and-yellow emblem, but also a few red-and-white ones. He himself went from house to house. He promised the parish priest to secure funds for alterations on the church. He gave his word to the mayor that he would personally be responsible for the repair of the public highways, which improvement the citizens had been unable to secure from the county directors. To others he gave promises of this or that sort, to the doubters he gave ready money, but to his factory employees he merely gave orders to be on hand.
Schlosser had determined that he must triumph in vauntingly ostentatious fashion over the obstinate old Czech. And he did triumph.
On the day of the celebration the entire village, with the exception of a few out-and-out old-fashioned Czechs, was all rejoicing and excitement from early dawn. Be yond the church where the procession was forming, they were firing from mortars and bands played merrily.
Everyone came—the factory foremen and their wives, the district officials from the city, the priest, the schoolmaster and nearly all the villagers. The village itself was wholly desertod and at Nešněra’s, that is at the school building, there was not a living soul.
At that hour, old Nešněra emerged from his cottage and directed his steps to the schoolhouse. He wished to enter through the main door, but found it locked. In the celebration program, Schlosser was to hand over the key which had been gilded for the occasion, to the mayor of the community.
A window in the lower part of the structure had been left open and through that the old man with the nimbleness of a youth slipped inside. Then he quickly closed the window and went forward into the main hall. Moved by a strange thought, he approached the door and slid the bolt so that not even by the aid of a key could anyone enter the building. Then he inspected the hall. The inscription on the wall met his gaze. It was in German, but Nešněra could understand it. It read “Everything depends on God’s blessing.”
“Just wait, I’ll give you a blessing,” he muttered, shaking his fist. He turned and saw a crucifix on the wall. He fell on his knees before it and prayed for a long time. Then he arose, his eyes shining with an odd light, and betook himself to the upper floor, thence to the garret.
If someone had passed the school at that moment, they would have seen the black-and-yellow banner which had been waving from the dormer window disappear. Almost immediately, however, the heavy flag staff was restored.
Beyond the village the firing of mortars was heard, the music began and the procession, now fully formed, started on its jubilant march towards the school. At that instant, old Nešněra, with eyes fairly starting from their sockets, was kneeling in prayer near the dormer window.
He knelt with clasped hands, his lips repeating the prayer of the dying. And when he realized that the procession had already turned into the main street leading to the school and that in the next moment they would be here, he rose and suddenly leaped out. The factory proprietor, Schlosser, cursed loudly and turned to “Schuldiener” Nešněra, demanding to know what had become of the black-and-yellow flag. The eyes of all turned towards the dormer, but without warning something most remarkable appeared there. An unrecognizable figure dropped out of the dormer window and then, intercepted in its fall by a rope, swung back and forth like a pendulum from the flag staff. Later they distinguished that it had hands which were wildly gesticulating.
“Christ Jesus! It is he! It is the old man!” echoed from every pair of lips, and the participants in the celebration parade in excited haste flew to the school. The music became silent, but the mortars kept on booming in exultant triumph.
“The key! Quick, give me the key!” screamed Joseph like one stark mad, rushing at Schlosser. Apolenka burst into sobs, the children set up a wail, Schlosser uttered oath after oath, while his wife, beholding the horrible scene, sank to the ground and rolled about in spasms.
In vain did Joseph try to enter the school. The throng of people meantime gazed at the corpse of the old man which still swung in the breeze. His face, around which fluttered his long gray locks and white beard, took on in the death struggle a terrible appearance. The cheeks became ashy, the eyes were rolled up and from the open mouth the tongue protruded.
Women shrieked and covered their eyes with their hands. Men called for the firemen with their ladders until it occurred to someone to break open a window and jump inside.
An instant later the flag-post with the corpse of Nešněra was drawn back into the dormer. They untied his body and began at once to try to resuscitate him, but it was useless.
Nešněra was with his God!
A year had passed since the death of Nešněra, but in the school no teaching had begun, although the teacher was there and all the equipment needed for instruction. The horrible death of Nešněra had so reacted on the minds of all that not a single inhabitant of the village arrived to register in the new school.
Schlosser tried to compel his employees, but they all threatened that they would rather bang themselves. And from that time he had a horror of hanged persons. Often in his dreams he saw the apparition of the old man whom he had driven to death. Schlosser’s wife paid for that deed in the loss of her health. She nearly lost her life also, but as it was, the life of her child which came into the world prematurely was the price paid.
And it was this woman, broken until the end of her days, who had been accustomed to look upon the laboring class contemptuously and without sympathy, who now implored her husband with clasped hands not to force his workmen into the German school.
Finally, even Schlosser himself began to believe, although he would never acknowledge it, that fate had avenged itself on him.
But things went harder with Joseph, whom no one addressed otherwise than as “Schuldiener.” He seemed to have lost wife, children and love of life. He gave himself up to drinking and whenever he was much intoxicated he cursed and reviled himself, the German “master,” the church and even the school. Often he threatened that he would settle his score with Schlosser.
But Schlosser one day just before he departed with his wife for some place in Italy, called the mayor of the village and announced to him that he wished to present the school building to the community on condition that the adjoining lands and the former habitation of Nešněra, together with the sheds and outbuildings, should remain the possession of the grandchildren of the hanged suicide.
When young Nešněra heard of it, he burst into bitter sobbing, and throwing himself down upon the earth kissed and caressed it. They could not even tear him from it.
“My beloved land! Blood and sweat of my fathers! Preserved for us! And the Nešněras shall not die out here! But a certain one of them this land must no longer bear on its bosom!”
When he arose from the ground, a strange light gleamed in his deepset, bloodshot eyes. The next day they found Nešněra dead on the grave of his father. He had shot himself in order that he should no more desecrate by a single step that soil of which he had proved himself unworthy.
The school on the Nešněra homestead stands to this day. And it prospers for it is teaching children to love their native country, their nation and the land of their fathers. The factory, too, is still there and in operation, but Schlosser’s son never influences his employees by a single word to deny their nationality.
Beyond the school, Nešněra’s wife, with the money left her after the death of her husband, built a new cottage for her children. The older one of the boys when he had grown up and attended the required schools, became teacher in “Nešněra’s school.” The younger one devoted himself to farming the home fields and thus both remained on the native soil of their fathers.
To-day the older of the two is in charge of the schools, for the community has grown and prospered and there was need of more teachers for the increased number of children. The younger brother became mayor of the town. Both are the most zealous advocates of love for that land which our fathers by the sweat of their brows have earned and by their blood have hallowed for us as our heritage. And, in truth, I think that in that community it would be impossible for an enemy outsider to buy enough land to hold so much as a post on which the one selling it might follow the example of old Nešněra.
- The word is “výměnek,” signifying a small cottage with enough attached land or a sum set aside to provide maintenance for a parent who has bequeathed all his property to the children and has retired from its active management. It is a custom among the Czechs and Slovaks to reserve a plot of ground or a pension for their old age.
- Halama-a stubborn churl.
This work is a translation and has a separate copyright status to the applicable copyright protections of the original content.
Public domainPublic domainfalse
This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.
The longest-living author of this work died in 1948, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 74 years or less. This work may 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.
Public domainPublic domainfalse