Poet Lore/Volume 25/Number 6/The Witness

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Poet Lore, vol. 25, Winter number  (1914) 
The Witness
by Jaroslav Vrchlický, translated by Charles Recht

Translation from the Czech original Svědek, 1894.


Dramatis Personae

Iustus Korber, J. D. (fifty-five years of age), a lawyer.[2]

Theresa, his wife (thirty-three years of age).

Gustav Cernick, J. D. (thirty-five years of age), a lawyer, Korber’s associate.

Joseph Valenta (about sixty years of age).

Mary, a servant.

A Plainclothes Policeman.

The dining-room in Korber’s apartment. The servant is clearing the table at which Korber, buried in a newspaper, is sitting. Theresa is taking things down from a buffet. The appearance of the room indicates that the family is about to remove. Most of the pictures are on the floor and are set back against the walls. Near the hearth is a barrel, and a trunk on the left; near the window is a lady’s writing table. Atop of it are hat boxes, toilet articles and similar trifles. As the curtain rises, the servant, having placed the dishes on a tray, is taking them out into the kitchen on the right.

Theresa.—You’ll have to excuse that poor lunch, dear the moving upsets everything.

Iustus.—Oh! don’t mention it.

Theresa.—And are you not vexed?

Iustus.—Not about the luncheon; there are plenty of other things.

Theresa (going over to him). — Poor boy, you are worried.

Iustus.—Some things just do not succeed, and in others people take advantage of you.

Theresa.—But you ought not to worry any more. There’s no need of it now.

Iustus.—Easily said. Well, it will not kill me. (Pause.) Will you be through to-day with this (surveying the disarranged articles) veritable babel?

Theresa.—I hope so. Does it not give you a queer feeling to move after all these fifteen years? It is a big part of our life from which we are forcing ourselves.

Iustus.—But you insisted yourself on this moving.

Theresa.—Of course, I did. We did not have enough space here. (Going toward the window.) Across the yard is the insane asylum with its high walls and a row of tiresome windows.

Iustus. And it annoys you only now, after these fifteen years. Women! Women!

Theresa (smiling).—There you go, against women again.

Iustus.—Do I wrong you then? I was fully contented here for twelve—fifteen years, and you for the last twelve never uttered a word against the neighborhood. All at once—‘it’s gloomy here.’ All of a sudden, the ‘high walls’ and ‘tiresome windows.’ You know well that I do anything to please you, and so I moved. Had you wanted to remain here, we would have never moved away.

Theresa (seriously).—Thanks, very much, for catering to my whims.

Iustus.—You are entirely welcome. (He reads. Pause. Iustus continues to read the newspaper. Theresa is removing dishes from the buffet into the basket.) Well, all in all, are you glad to move away from here?

Theresa.—Yes, I am longing for a change.

Iustus. You know that we can still remain here if you wish it. The flat is not rented. I can stop over at the landlord’s and tell him. All you have to do is to hang up your pictures, and things will go on as in the past.

Theresa (quickly).— Oh, no! no! What would the people say about us? Everybody knows now that we are moving, and besides, you’d forfeit a month’s rental in the new house.

Iustus.—How practical you are.

Theresa.—We’ll be through with everything before evening. Only let’s get away from here.

Iustus.—For my part! (He puts away the newspaper, rises and goes into the adjoining room. Theresa continues her work. Presently Iustus returns with hat and overcoat and goes over to the hearth and lights a cigar.) There’s another thing!

Theresa.—Yes, dear?

Iustus (taking a paper out of his pocket).—I found this on my desk this morning. D. Cernik sends me his immediate resignation.

Theresa (surprised).—Resignation?

Iustus.—Yes—stupid fellow—his style and all, is insulting.

Theresa (suppressing her nervousness).—That’s why you lost your appetite this noon.

Iustus.—Bah! Nonsense. But to leave me after ten years suddenly—without the slightest cause. And he has not enough decency to come straight to me and tell me like a man. He writes it and puts it on my desk and goes.

Theresa.—He probably will want to open his own office now.

Iustus.—Then I could understand his motive, but he does not.

Theresa.—Where is he going?

Iustus.—He says he is going to America.

Theresa (stops in her work and repeats very slowly).—To America.

Iustus.—Evidently, he is insane. But whatever he does is immaterial to me. It’s only that I was so dependent upon him. He was so reliable and, as a rule, he did not talk much. I can’t bear a prattling fool. In that way Gustav was perfect—even if he was not a good worker, he did not talk. God knows whom I’ll get. Some fellow who’ll talk politics, literature, drama and what not, from morning till night.

Theresa.—Well, young men must take an interest in life.

Iustus.—They should be like me. My life is in my law books and cases. The other things are superfluous.

Theresa.—Unfortunately so for you.

Iustus.—Fortunately, you ought to say. If you’d follow my ways, you would not be so nervous. But people who have no cares of their own, make everything their business. And so they get themselves into no end of trouble. Now I have made my little speech and I can go.

Theresa.—When are you coming back?

lustus.—I don’t know. Hardly to this place. We’ll see each other in the new flat.

Theresa.—And you say that so indifferently.

Iustus (in the doorway).—Should I cry about it? Some people move every half a year. If they were like you, they’d have no tears left for the regulation family funeral. Good-bye.

Theresa.—Good-bye, dear. (Theresa remains alone for some time, continuing her work.) To America—to America. He, the only witness (going to the window) except these high mute walls. (She shivers nervously.) Away from these witnesses—to America.

(Gustav Cernik enters. He is dressed for travel.)

Gustav.—Good evening.

Theresa (surprised).—You? (Collecting herself.) Yes—Good evening.

Gustav.—I see that I should not have come here at all. Forgive me, and farewell!

Theresa.—Good luck to you, Cernik.

Gustav (looking around).—So you are really going away.

Theresa.—It is best to end all at once.

Gustav.—Just as I am doing.

Theresa.—Yes, Korber told me that you are going to America.

Gustav.—The only solution to our problem, Theresa.

Theresa.—Pardon me—our problem——

Gustav.—Yes, dear Mrs. Korber—our problem.

(The scene which ensues is that of a parting between two old lovers. She tells him that the walls of the room of the opposite house seem to reproach her for her infidelity. He says that he has noticed her indifference to him. He returns little love notes which they exchanged, when he worked in the law library next to her sewing-room. He wants to begin a new life also, and returns these to her so that all the witnesses may be destroyed. She places them on the mantel. He goes over to her and embraces her passionately. He kisses her once more, and covering her face with her hands, she rushes into an adjoining room. He leaves. There is a long pause. Enters Joseph Valenta, a tall, grayish man, poorly dressed. He holds his cap in his hand.)

(Valenta takes a few steps into the empty room, looks around, goes back again to the door, coughs.)

Theresa (entering from adjoining room).—Who’s here?

Valenta.—Pardon, Gnädige Frau, pardon my liberty.

Theresa.—Who let you in?

Valenta.—I did not have to ring at all, Gnädige Frau.[3] The door was open, there was no one in the vestibule, so I walked in here.

Theresa.—And what do you want?

Valenta.—I wanted to ask you to kindly, to—I met Dr. Korber in the street about half an hour ago, when he left the house, and I begged him—I asked for some kind of employment even if it were ever so small. The doctor, he was so kind, he said I should come over here, that he will come back here and we’ll talk about it. Some minor clerical work or errands. I would do anything; you’d be satisfied—I am an old man, but I am well preserved, and when the doctor gave me hopes he said he would see—excuse me, Gnädige Frau. I was so bold as to——

Theresa.—But my husband will hardly return to-day. And you can see that we are moving. There’s no time for it to-day.

Valenta.—That’s just why I took the liberty to-day, Gnädige Frau, as long as we are, as it were, still neighbors.——


Valenta.—Certainly (pointing to the windows), Gnädige Frau does not know me, but I know her very well.

Theresa (not noticing his motion).—No, I do not know you.

Valenta.—And I know the doctor, very well, too, and also that young gentleman who always sits over the law books—there. When a man sees the same faces every day for fifteen years, he knows them like his own family.

Theresa (disturbed).—You watched our faces daily for fifteen years. That’s terrible! But from where?

Valenta (goes to the window and points).—From there, Gnädige Frau.

Theresa (frightened).—That’s the madhouse—man—did you escape from there?

Valenta (smiling).—I am not a lunatic. I was the caretaker of the inmates there, Gnädige. But I was unfortunate. Every man has his enemies, and I am the victim of mine. We had a new superintendent and he believed the report that I drugged and mistreated the patients there. So, yesterday, he discharged me. After fifteen years, Gnädige, it is hard, and so in my distress, I wondered if the doctor and you could not assist me with employment of some sort. A person who lives across the way for fifteen years and notices everything that goes on in the opposite apartment, and sees day after day who.comes in and who goes out, he feels that they are sort of old acquaintances, Gnädige Frau, begging your pardon.

Theresa.—You have spied on us for fifteen years. And you use that as an inducement for me to employ you! That is a strange recommendation.

Valenta.—Good Lord, Gnädige, you cannot blame me. When I had to sit there (pointing at the windows) with nothing at all to do. My work was over early. All the windows are on this side, so this was the only interesting place I could look on, as you never did lower your windowshades.

Theresa (disturbed).—Who could fancy that -you insolent, low fellow——

Valenta (smiling).—Really, Gnädige, do not excite yourself—I will not mention a word to a living person—I am a very discreet man, you know—but—our sort gets into all kinds of places and learns of all kinds of secrets—because them fellows across the yard there, they give away many dark things—so our sort, as I say, goes deeper into secrets than the priest or the doctor——

Theresa.—Yes—I know it. So here we were spied upon for fifteen years, and you have the brazen boldness to brag about it.

Valenta.—But, Gnädige, when I mentioned it to the doctor he was not a bit excited about it. I told him the same that I told you, but he only smiled and told me to call a little later. And I watched him all these years, there in his room at his desk where he sat over his masses of law papers and books, just as I watched the young man, his assistant. They used to sit in there and you used to sit at the window. There was also a couch,—it is not here now—You sat alone and sewed and sang. And right here over your head hung a beautiful little canary which sang loudly as though it wanted to compete with you. What became of it—did it die—the poor, dear thing?

Theresa.—Keep quiet, man, for heaven’s sake, keep quiet.

Valenta.—I used to envy you this peaceful, well-regulated life, Gnädige Frau. Right over there in the hall hung a large picture—it's not there any longer either. (Looks about.) You have moved and changed it all—and it is a long time since you sang, Gnädige.

Theresa.—Why are you torturing me?

Valenta.—I—Gnädige—heaven forbid—Good Lord, your simple life,—at least, the way I saw it,—(looking intently at her) gives you no reason for alarm or reproach.

Theresa.—Listen, my man, why then are you telling me all this, and what are you bothering me for? When my husband comes, I’ll tell him to have nothing to do with you. I do not want you in my house. A man who spies on his neighbors for fifteen years is a shameless fellow.

Valenta.—Especially if he keeps quiet about it.

Theresa.—You know nothing at all, nothing.

Valenta.—Yes, I saw it.

Theresa.—From across there?

Valenta.—Yes. One afternoon, the doctor was down town and the servant girl was out of the house. You were alone. You sat here, your sewing in your hands, looking at an open door. Then from the adjoining room the young gentleman came in and looked at you so lovingly. I seem to see it even now. He held a cigar between his fingers and sat down (does likewise) on the edge of this table.

Theresa.—Why do you remind me of it?

Valenta.—So you’d know that I know it, Gnädige Frau. He stood here and talked and talked to you a long while. I was looking at you all the time and was getting tired of it. He had talked to you in that way many a time before, and then quietly went away. But on this particular day when he stood against the table he spoke so vehemently——

Theresa.—Be silent!

Valenta.—Well, I am not saying anything, not a word. You resisted him as much as you could. I can’t deny that—but in the end——

Theresa.—Keep still, you wretch!

Valenta (coming nearer to her).—Well, Gnädige Frau, you put in a good word for me with the doctor—and you will see how discreet I can be—an old veteran like myself—believe me, I can’t even remember such little trifles—but you reminded me of it with your excitement. Who’d think of it—What’s happened, has happened, now we must be good friends and help each other.

Theresa.—God, this is dreadful. We must help each other—this man has the audacity to tell me this so quietly because he knows of my sins. You are an evil and dangerous fellow.

Valenta.—No, Gnädige, I am not.

Theresa.—Prove it then, swear that you will never utter a word, and that you will go away and never cross my husband’s or my path.

Valenta.—But, Gnädige Frau, I am a poor, miserable man. My enemies have ruined me. I have nothing to eat. I am penniless.

Theresa.—So that’s the game. (Goes into adjoining room.) Wait—— (Short pause. She returns presently with a roll of bank notes.) There you are. There’s more there than you expected.

Valenta (just glances at the bank notes, then quickly puts them into his coat pocket).—God bless you, Gnädige Frau.

Theresa.—Now, go quickly and don’t let me hear from you again.

Valenta.—No—no. I’ll leave the city to-day, and you shall never see me again.

Theresa.—Thank God for that.

Valenta.—You have saved a destitute man, Gnädige Frau. (He takes her hand and wants to kiss it; she quickly withdraws it and points to the door.)

Theresa.—Go!—and quickly——

(Valenta exit.)

Theresa (sighs). That’s over, God! Now for a new, clean life. (Calls.) Mary! Is there no one here? (Calls.) Mary! (Runs from one door to another excitedly.) Always alone—always. (Presses bell-button nervously, and continuously.) God! (She clenches her hands and brings one to her lips.)

Mary.—You rang, Gnädige Frau?

Theresa.—Where have you been all this time? There’s no one in the whole house. Nice order! A strange man walks right into this dining-room without ringing—and I had my hands full to get rid of him.

Mary.—You have forgotten, Gnädige Frau, that you sent me to urge the expressman to come. He is on his way now.

Theresa.—Of course, I sent you. But why did you leave the hall door wide open?

Mary.—The doctor was the last one to leave, Gnädige Frau, he probably left it open. I am always careful about the hall door.

Theresa.—You always have an excuse for everything.

Mary (going to the window).—We’d better begin to get ready. The van and moving men are out there.

(Theresa goes to the window and looks.)

Mary.—But Lord, look, what is that—two men are fighting down there.

Theresa.—God Almighty, that’s the same man!

Mary.—And the other fellow does not want to let him go. Look at the crowd—how they run! Too bad we can’t hear what they have to say up here. Here’s the doctor, Gnädige Frau. He is taking that man’s part—that old man’s—he talks to the other fellow—they are quiet now—they are coming up here. (Turning to Theresa.) Is that the man who frightened you so badly, Gnädige Frau?

Theresa (extremely upset).— Yes.

Mary.—Here they are.

(Enter Dr. Korber, followed by a plainclothes policeman, who is handcuffed to Valenta.)

Policeman.—Begging your pardon, Gnädige Frau, for intruding, but this fellow (pointing to Valenta) was discharged from the crazy-house for bribery and drug-selling, and we had him under surveillance. We saw him enter your house, and after a while he re-appeared and was in a great hurry. I stopped him but he acted so suspiciously that I searched him and found in his possession the bank roll (showing money), about five hundred dollars. I wanted to take him to the station-house quietly, he protested, so I had to use force. Then your husband came by, and we thought we’d all come up to investigate

Iustus.—This man was our neighbor for fifteen years, and he asked me for employment this morning.

Valenta.—Yes, this gentleman told me to call here for a job, but he was not at home.

Policeman.—That part of your story is quite right, old chap, But what did you do here when the boss was out?

Theresa.—He asked me for work.

Policeman.—But the money?


Policeman.—Yes, that’s why I pinched him. A man like he never had that much money in his life. They (pointing to the window) don’t get that in two years, in salaries.

(Valenta is silent.)

Policeman.—You people would better look over your things here. If this money does not belong here, it belongs some other place. We’ll find out soon enough. We’d better be going. (Wants to lead Valenta away.)

Theresa.—It was my money, I gave it to him. Let him go, he’s innocent.

(The Policeman, surprised, looks from Korber to Theresa, and then at Korber again. Short pause.)

Iustus.—Well, officer, if my wife says so, it must be true. Let him go and please go, too.

Policeman.—Begging your pardon, sir, no harm meant, I was just doing my duty.

Iustus.—I understand—it’s all right. I thank you.

Policeman (to Valenta).—Now, get yourself away as soon as you can.

Iustus (to Policeman).—You leave him here a while. Good-bye, officer.

(Officer leaves. Long pause. Korber is pacing up and down the room, goes over to the mantel and picks up the papers left by Cernik. Theresa is standing by the window, her back to audience and to Korber. Valenta is nervously fingering his cap. He is standing at the door and is looking at bank roll left on the table.)

Iustus (to Valenta).—You were a keeper in the insane asylum over there?

Valenta.—Yes, sir.

Iustus.—And you were discharged, and came to ask me for employment?

Valenta.—Yes, sir.

Iustus.—Then you did not find me at home, when you called?

Valenta.—No, sir.

Iustus (to Theresa).—Did you give this man five hundred dollars, Theresa?

Theresa (still in the same position).—I did.

Iustus.—You told me that you watched my house carefully for fifteen years, and you knew what went on there.

Valenta.—Yes, I did.

Iustus.—Dr. Cernik’s boat leaves Hamburg to-morrow morning, Theresa.

Theresa.—Does it?

Iustus.—He was here and told you. (Pointing to papers on the mantel.)

Theresa.—He was, but he did not say.

Iustus (to Valenta).—Sit down. (Valenta takes a seat at the table.) What did you say to my wife when you called here to-day, and what did she tell you. Now tell me all you know.

Theresa (turning to Iustus)—Excuse me, Iustus. At what time does the next train leave for Hamburg?

Iustus.—Seven-twenty. You still have time.

Theresa.—I’ll get my hat and coat in the meantime. (Exit. Goes to adjoining room.)

Iustus (taking seat).—Now you shall tell me just all you said to my wife this morning, and all she said to you. Everything!

Valenta (moving about uneasily in the chair).—Well, doctor, it was like this. I am a poor, miserable, penniless fellow. I have a lot of enemies.

(From the adjoining room a revolver shot is heard. Iustus rushes into that room. Valenta picks up money on the table, puts his cap on and goes out.)


  1. All rights reserved. Copyright 1914, by Charles Recht.
  2. In Austria all lawyers have J. U. D. degrees, and are called doctors.
  3. I have used the title of “Gnädige Frau” and not “milostpam,” its Bohemian equivalent. My reason for it is twofold: in the first place, it is a strictly German custom imported into Kleinstädliches Bohemia; and secondarily, because the American readers will more readily understand the meaning of that custom if it is in German. Personally, I should have preferred to use the Bohemian “milostpam” in colloquial usage. This flattering title is pronounced “gnä’ge,” and it is used in this form by Valenta.

 This work is a translation and has a separate copyright status to the applicable copyright protections of the original content.


This work was published before January 1, 1928, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.


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 1965, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 57 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.