Czechoslovak Stories/He Was a Rascal

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HE WAS A RASCAL

BY JAN NERUDA

Horáček was dead. Nobody regretted his death, for they knew him throughout all of Small Side.[1] In Small Side people know their neighbors well, perhaps because they know no one else, and when Horáček died they told each other it was a good thing, for by his death his good mother would be relieved, and then, “He was a rascal.” He died in the twenty-fifth year of his age, suddenly, as was stated in the obituary lists. In that list his character was not entered, for the reason, as the chief clerk in the drugstore very wittily remarked, that a rascal really has no character. But how different it would have been if the chief clerk had died! Nobody knew a thing against or about him! Horáček’s corpse was hauled out with other corpses from the public chapel. “As was his life, so was his end,” said the chief clerk in the drugstore. Behind the carriage walked a small group, composed mainly of persons in somewhat holiday attire, and therefore all the more noticeably beggars.

In the group only two persons properly belonged to Horáček’s funeral procession, his aged mother and a very elegantly dressed young man who supported her. He was very pale, his gait was oddly trembling and uncertain, indeed it seemed at times as if he shook with chills. The Small Side populace scarcely noticed the weeping mother, for her burden was now lightened, and though she wept it was just because she was a mother and doubtless from joy. The young man, however, was in all probability from some other quarter, for no one recognized him.

“Poor fellow! He himself needs to be supported! Most likely he attended the funeral on Mrs. Horáček’s account!—What’s that? A friend of young Horáček’s?—Why, who would publicly acknowledge friendship for the disgraced man? Besides, Horáček from childhood had no friends. He was always a rascal! Unhappy mother!”

The mother cried heartbreakingly all the way and great tears rolled down the young man’s cheeks, despite the fact that Horáček had been a rascal from his very childhood.

Horáček’s parents were hucksters. They did not fare ill as, in general, hucksters who have their own shop get along well where many poor people live. Money gathers slowly, to be sure, when it comes in by kreutzers and groats for wood, butter and lard, especially when one must throw in a pinch of salt and caraway. But for all that, the groats are cash and two-groat debts were punctually paid. Besides, Mrs. Horáček had patrons among the officials’ wives, and they praised her fine butter. They took a good deal of it, for they did not pay till the first of the month.

Their boy, František, was already nearly three years old and still wore girl’s dresses. The neighbor women said he was an ugly child. The neighbors’ children were older and seldom did František become emboldened enough to play with them. Once the children were calling names after a passing Jew. František was among them, but he was not crying out. The Jew started at a run after the children and caught František, who did not even attempt to run away. With curses the Jew led him to his parents. The neighbor women were shocked that the homely little František was already a rascal.

His mother was frightened and took counsel with her husband.

“I shall not beat him, but here at home he would grow wild among the children, for we can’t look after him. Let us put him in a nursery!”

František was put into trousers and went with lamentation to the nursery school. He sat there for two years. The first year he received as a reward for his quietness at the annual examination a breakfast roll. The second year he would have gotten a little picture if things hadn’t been spoiled for him. The day before the examination he was going home at noon. He had to go past the house of a rich landholder. In front of the house poultry used to run through the quiet street, and František often enjoyed himself heartily with them. That day there were on promenade a number of turkey hens which František had never seen before in his life. He stood still and gazed at them in rapture. Ere long, František was squatting down among them and was carrying on important discourses with them. He forgot about his dinner and about school, and when the children at the afternoon session told that František was playing with the turkey hens instead of going to school the schoolmaster sent the school maid-servant to bring him. At the examination František received nothing, and the schoolmaster told his mother to attend to him more severely, that he was already a regular rascal.

And in reality František was a thorough rascal. In the parish school he sat beside the son of the inspector and used to go home with him, hand in hand. They used to play together at the inspector’s house. František was permitted to rock the youngest child, and for that he would get a little white pot of coffee for lunch. The inspector’s son always had beautiful clothes and a white, stiffy starched collar. František wore clean clothes, to be sure, but they were abundantly patched. For that matter, it never occurred to him that he was dressed any differently than the inspector’s son. One day after school the teacher paused beside the two boys, patted the inspector’s son on the cheek and said: “See, Conrad, what a fine boy you are, for you can keep your collar from getting soiled! Give my cordial greetings to your respected father!”

“Yes, sir,” answered František.

“I’m not talking to you, you piece of patchwork!”

František could not see at once why his patches made impossible a message of greeting from the teacher to his father, but he began suspecting that there was, after all, some sort of difference between himself and the inspector’s son, so he gave the latter a good thrashing. He was driven out as an irredeemable rascal.

His parents sent him to the German schools. František scarcely understood a single word of German, and consequently progressed very miserably in his studies. His teachers regarded him as a careless fellow, although he surely toiled enough. They considered his morals spoiled, because he always defended himself when the boys shoved into him, and he was unable to give any explanation in German of the reason for his scuffles. The boys in reality had plenty to tease him about. Every little while he made some laughable mistake in German and in other ways furnished causes for derisive diversion. Their chief amusement, however, was occasioned one day when he arrived at school wearing a quilted green cap with a horizontal shade as thick as one’s finger, standing out from it. His father had purposely made a trip to the Old Town to select something special for him.

“This won’t break and neither will the sun burn you,” he said, after sewing on the shade, and František really thought he had something unusually ornamental and strutted proudly to school. Endless laughter greeted him, the boys hopped about him, assuring him that his shade was, compared to other shades, like a side post among thin planks, and they called him the “jamb boy.” František broke the nose of one of the boys with his “jamb,” for which he got the lowest grade in deportment, and had all he could do later to be accepted into the gymnasium.

His parents wished to make every effort to have their son become somebody so that he would not be compelled to earn his bread by as hard means as they did. The teachers and neighbors tried to talk them out of the notion, saying he had no ability, and besides that, he was a rascal. Indeed, among the neighbors he had that reputation. He was particularly unfortunate with them, although in reality he did no more than their own children, possibly even less. Whenever he played ball on the street it was sure to fly into someone’s open window and when with his companions he played at shuttlecock in the driveway he was sure to break the lamp under the cross, although he took pains to be careful.

Nevertheless František, who was now called Horáček, entered the gymnasium. It cannot be said that he applied himself to school studies with excessive perseverance, for they had begun to disgust him when he was in the German school. His general progress was only enough to permit him to advance year after year without much difficulty to the next higher division. But for that Horáček studied all the more fervently those subjects which do not strictly belong in school. He read diligently whatever came into his hands, and very soon had a thorough knowledge of literature in foreign tongues. His German style was soon very polished. It was the only subject in which he received a grade of “excellent” throughout his career at the gymnasium. His exercises were always replete with beautiful thoughts and phrases. His teacher once asserted that he had a style so flowery that it resembled Herder’s style. They had regard for this, and when he did not know much in other branches they would say that he had great talent, but that he was a rascal. They did not, however, trust themselves to spoil his talent and Horáček slipped through even the final decisive examination.

He became a law student, as was the custom and also because his father wished him to become an official. Horáček now had even more time for reading, and be cause, at this time, he fell happily in love he himself began to write. The papers published his first attempts, and all of Small Side was immeasurably exasperated that he had become a literary man and that he wrote for the papers and, what was worst of all, for the Czech papers. They prophesied that he would now rapidly go to the dogs, and when, after a short time, his father died they knew with certainty that he had grieved himself to death over his rascally son.

His mother gave up the huckster business. After a short time things went hard with them and Horáček had to see to it that he earned something. He could not give private instruction, and then, too, no one wanted him as a private teacher. He would have liked to look around for some small official position, but he had not yet decided. A taste for further study would not have hindered, law was a distasteful enough fare, and he attended college only when time hung on his hands. At the beginning of his law studies he made a resolution that for every hour he attended lectures he would write an epigram. He began with antique distichs, but when he read his first written epigram he saw that his hexameter had seven feet. He had much joy of his new meter and he determined to write only in heptameters. When, however, he thought of publishing them, he counted his heptameters and discovered they had expanded to eight.

His chief obstacle was his love affair. The young girl, beautiful and truly lovable, was filled with a pure, strong love for him, and her parents did not force her to consider any one else, although there were suitors in plenty for her hand. The girl wished to wait for Horáček until after he had finished his studies and had secured a good place. The official position which was offered to Horáček had the advantage of an immediate salary but there were no prospects of advancement in the future. Horáček knew well that the girl he loved would have no future with him. He could not sacrifice her to a life of privations. He thought he was much less in love with her than he really was and he resolved to give her up. He had not the heart to renounce her in a direct manner. He wished to be repulsed, driven away. It was an unconscious desire to revel in undeserved pain. A means of accomplishing his end soon occurred to him. He wrote an anonymous letter in a disguised hand, relating the most shameful things about himself and sent the letter to the parents of the girl he loved. The girl would not believe the informer, but her father was more worldly wise, made inquiries of Horáček’s neighbors and heard from them that the young man had been a rascal from youth. When Horáček came to make a call a few days later, the weeping girl ran into another room and he was politely driven out of the house. The young girl became a bride not long after, and the rumor spread throughout Small Side that Horáček had been banished from the house for his rascality.

Now, indeed, Horáček’s heart ached to the breakingpoint. He had lost the only person who truly loved him, and he could not deny that it was through his own fault. He lost courage, his new occupation proved distasteful to him and he began to languish and fail visibly. His neighbors were not in the least surprised, for, said they, it was the natural consequence of reckless living.

His present work was in a private banking-house. Despite his dislike for it, he worked industriously, and his employer soon placed entire confidence in him, even entrusting large sums of money to him when these had to be delivered somewhere. Horáček also had an opportunity to earn the gratitude of his employer’s son. One day the young man waited for Horáček when the latter was just departing.

“Mr. Horáček, if you will not help me, I shall have to drown myself and cause my father disgrace in order to escape my own shame. I owe a debt which must absolutely be paid today. I shall not receive my own money until day after tomorrow and I don’t know what to do. You are delivering some money to my uncle—. Entrust it to me for the time being and day after tomorrow everything will be fully settled. Uncle will not ask father about the money!”

But the uncle did ask, and the next day this notice appeared in the newspapers: “I request all who have any dealings with me to entrust no money to František Horáček. I have discharged him on account of dishonesty.” Even a report of a fire in some other quarter would not have interested Small Side so much as did this.

Horáček did not betray the son of his employer. He went home and lay down in bed under the pretext that he had a headache.

The district doctor for the poor on the following day entered the drugstore at his regular hour, somewhat absorbed in thought.

“So, then, that rascal is dead?” asked the clerk suddenly.

“Horáček?—Well, yes!”

“And what did he die of?”

“Well, now—perhaps we’ll say in the records that he was stricken with apoplexy.”

“So! Well, after all, it’s a good thing that he didn’t run up a lot of bills for medicines, the rascal!”

  1. Small Side, “Malâ Strana,” is a part of the city of Prague, connected with the Old Town by means of the stone bridge of King Charles erected in 1357.
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, 1927, 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, 1927.


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.