Czechoslovak Stories/The Philosophers

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Czechoslovak Stories  (1920) 
The Philosophers
by Alois Jirásek, translated by Šárka B. Hrbková

THE PHILOSOPHERS

BY ALOIS JIRÁSEK

The old entrenchment of a field battery near the small wood, now half sunken and overgrown with shrubbery, has stood in the solitude of the fields for a good hundred years. It alone has remained of all the fortifications and mounds which extended here in a long line through the plain, concealing numberless Prussian cannon aimed against the emperor’s army protected by trenches. Now it resembles an ancient tomb in which herdsmen, on misty mornings or cold evenings, build fires to warm themselves and from which they halloo into the distance.

In the year 1778 during the war over the Bavarian succession, all the country along the Medhuj and the upper Elbe, containing two armies, resembled an immense anthill. At the head of the Prussian army, Friedrich; against him, Joseph, both philosophers.

A heavy fog had settled on the country like a deep lake. It was early in the morning, quiet and soundless, as if not a soldier were near. Nowhere was ringing of bells permitted, but instead there sounded, in a man’s voice, the old song “Whoever the protection of the Highest—”

Václav Suk, soldier of the emperor’s regiment under Hiller, standing far out in the front guard on the edge of the grassy dale, heard that song. Thick underbrush concealed half his body. Because it was cold he had rolled his gray cape closely up to his three-cornered hat so that not even his braided cue was visible. And now came that song—as if from directly opposite him! Was the enemy so close? How could it be?

Suk liked best a worldly song with his comrades beside the fire or before the booth of some youthful female cantinière, but this time the religious song moved him strangely. His grandmother used to sing it from parlor to bedroom and from chamber to garret, when her loose slippers, pattering, woke the whole household.

Suk took up the song also. The voice opposite ceased for a moment, then sounded anew and the old song was carried on the waves of the gradually lifting fog.

Václav, however, could not stand it long. His curiosity got the better of him. The unknown on the other side of the hollow sang on like a music master and it seemed as if he wished to finish out the stanzas just as Suk’s grandmother used to do.

“Say, you, over there, are you a soldier?”

That is how Suk began the conversation and he did not speak into unanswering mist. He learned that he was talking with a soldier of the Prussian advance guard.

“And how is it that you are a Brandenburger and yet speak the Czech language?”

“I am a Czech of Kladsko on the Bohemian borders. I am serving in the army, by God’s will, my second year now—.”

“He is a pious man,” thought Suk to himself. “Without a doubt he is of the Helvetian confession,” and he expressed this conjecture aloud. The Prussian confirmed the surmise.

“And what is your name?” “Jan Koláčný.”

“And here we are talking—what would our masters say to us?”

“Why, are we doing something wicked?”

“To be sure, we are fellow countrymen, both Czechs. When will such a meeting as this occur again?”

The conversation lagged. Suk saw through the mist which was gradually growing lighter the silhouette of the Prussian soldier in his spiked cap resembling a bishop’s mitre. He was standing beside an old thickly crowned bushy beech. After a pause, Suk began, “It’s very cold to-day—.”

“It is. Come here and get warm.” Koláčný urged as genuinely as if he stood on the threshold of his snow-covered mountain cottage.

“Where?”

“Here to me. I have a full bottle—”

Suk stood rigid. Suspicion was awakened. Some trick perhaps—and then—to go away from the spot appointed to him as guard! Koláčný understood.

“Fear not, friend! How could I injure you? Let us lay aside our weapons and each go half way.” That voice did not deceive and Suk saw that Koláčný was propping his gun against a tree trunk. He looked around and went forward. Half way forward the soldiers met. The Prussian enemy with undisguised sincerity extended his hand.

“Just come, don’t be afraid. You and I have done nothing wrong to each other. We are brothers of one blood. What matters it to us what the rulers of these lands have done to each other?” said the Helvetian bible-loving descendant of the exiled Bohemian brethren emigrants. And the lively lad from the home kingdom understood him.

As these two deliberated, so, surely, many before them had reflected and doubtless many in future shall do, whether kings be philosophers or, as Plato dreamed—philosophers be kings.

“And here it ended,” added the old schoolmaster, who related the incident to me, as it had been handed down from ancient chronicles, indicating the ruined earthworks in which we paused to rest. “Both of the wise men became engrossed in conversation and were caught at it. Here in this place sat the Prussian king and hither they brought Koláčný for trial. He told all and in a short while after, they shot him down over there behind the breastworks. The other one escaped lead and powder, to be sure. But he ran a bloody gauntlet and God knows where he completed the rest of his punishment.”

And there you have it—what is there to an army that philosophizes and reflects?

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 is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1927.


The author died in 1930, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 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.

 
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.