Selected Czech Tales/The Living Flame

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Selected Czech Tales  (1925)  translated by Marie Busch and Otto Pick
The Living Flame by Josef Čapek

Translators ascribed the short story to both brothers Karel and Josef Čapek, probably because they took it from their collection of short stories Zářivé hlubiny (1916). However, the story had been already published in the journal Umělecký měsíčník in 1912 where it was signed only by Josef Čapek.




A certain Manoel M. L. had lived the greater part of his youth in a Southern seaport. He seemed to lack nothing that could make him happy; he enjoyed everything which his youth and his native town offered to him, was respected by men and loved by women, and by his friends also; and every one who knew him thought him a lucky man. But he himself often thought that something was wanting; that his happiness was not real; something of weariness and a dead weight was mingled therein, and this oppressed his mind with melancholy. Perhaps he was dissatisfied with himself for living as he did, instead of living a life which he was not able clearly to imagine. . . . Probably the reason was that he was living in a place where the inhabitants breathe the golden dust of far-off countries, and look out on the blue ocean which stirs all their longings, and where with a single step they can tear themselves away and sail to wherever they like. Perhaps Manoel was not distinctly conscious of all this, but only felt a secret restlessness and general longing of which he did not know whence it came or how to satisfy it.

One evening he went out to walk through the streets of his native town. Darkness had gathered, and Manoel went alone and without a set purpose; he walked until he came to the harbour, where he stood still on the quay.

The water was plashing gently, and a cool breeze was blowing from the sea. Large ships with their sails furled were bobbing up and down, and rubbing their flanks together with a crunching sound. In the centre rode a ship larger than the others, and boats with twinkling lights were dancing round it.

The thought suddenly occurred to Manoel: ‘How would it be if I were to take sail for India?’

He stood looking at the dark water and black ships. . . . ‘Supposing I took sail for India?’ he repeated. At that moment he was joined by two men; one was of a fantastically great stature, the other was black.

‘Sir’ said the large one, ‘have you ever known a swallow or a kite to fly as far as man with the help of God will sail? The world, sir, consists or is composed of distances and directions. Your wife, your neighbours and your house are an annoyance to you, you are weary of your good fortune, and disappointed in your life; but in strange countries you will have neither wife ner neighbour nor house. You will be living between the four points of the compass, and every direction is open, like a high road, waiting to be taken by you. Therefore leave your prison, O man, and lock the door behind you; you will then understand and praise the exquisite wisdom which created so many directions and such great distances, proving the true might and miraculous power of God. Amen.’

‘At the end of every direction,’ said the negro, ‘there are peoples or islands superior to everything else. Somewhere in the world you will find such wonderful things that you would fain forget all that you have known; and yet somewhere else there are still more beautiful things; you will never come to the end of them.’

‘There are moreover cases,’ said the large one, ‘of people who settle in those strange parts, where they become governors or despots, grow immensely rich, and enjoy every woman in the country or island. Some parts also are uninhabited by either man or beast; nothing exists there but God’s freedom. Yet man’s real freedom is not to be found in one place, but in the whole world.’

While they were talking, they had their eyes perpetually on the ship which was making ready with unfurling sails like a bird which opens its wings to prepare for flight. A bell rang loud and long. Then the two men grudgingly stepped into their boat and begged Manoel: ‘Commend us to the protection of God, noble sir.’

‘Where are you going?’ asked Manoel.

‘To hell, noble sir,’ said the white man, pushing off the boat with his foot.

‘To both the Indies,’ said the black one.

‘Supposing I came with you?’ cried Manoel and jumped into the middle of the boat. It rocked violently; the negro rowed with powerful strokes, and they struck against the flank of the large craft. They were no sooner on board than she moved off and out into the open sea.

It was thus that Manoel became a sailor for the rest of his life.

They took their course along the coast of Tunis, Egypt, Arabia and both the Indies; but Manoel did not sojourn long in any place, and when the ship returned to Europe, he went aboard another and sailed off again. The seasons and years went by, but he did not return home. He survived the foundering of several ships, the death of many companions; he recovered from malaria and other fevers, and from poisoning through swamps and insects; he received wounds which were healing while his countrymen gave him up for dead. But nowhere did Manoel find rest or lasting content; he settled nowhere, but preferred to make a miserable livelihood out of roaming land and seas. His errant life never gave him what he was hungering for, and his passion drove him on and on, until he was old and worn out with the hardships of his toil, and unable to withstand death any longer. Because he was poor, and no one asks a tramp any questions or takes him in, Manoel lay down in the road to die. But it was not ordained that he should die like the beasts of the field, nor like the ordinary man, for he was taken to the Hospital of the Brothers of Mercy. There he was put in a large ward, and above his héad were written his name and the name of the illness of which he was destined to die. His hands were folded across his chest, and he was asleep.

When he awoke, a young Brother came to his bedside and said: ‘Sir, a man who is dangerously ill does not know what may befall him, but even for those who are in health it is better to confess themselves and cleanse their souls of all that troubles them. Will you repent and confess, and refresh your soul with the sweet solace of redemption?’

‘I will,’ said Manoel, ‘for I have ever gladly tasted of all refreshments and sweetnesses which it fell to my lot to enjoy.’

Then the pious Brother hurried off to his Superior, who was a famous confessor, and told him that there was a man lying ill in the hospital who bore the character of being a heathen, and that he might now perhaps be converted and brought to confess and repent.

And the priest went to Manoel and addressed him kindly: ‘My dear son, I have been told that your hours are numbered, and you are willing to pour out your soul before God and give Him an account of your deeds.’ He further talked eloquently of confession, and that it was well for us to look at life as a whole before leaving it, and recapitulate our deeds, so that Manoel began truly to long to confess himself, and begged the priest to give ear to him.

‘Weigh your deeds well,’ said the priest, ‘and remember all. Is your illness no hindrance to you, and are you sufficiently in your senses not to forget important things?’

‘Never have I seen my life more clearly and completely than at this moment,’ said Manoel.

The confessor was glad to find so much humility in him, bade the others leave the room and sat down at his bedside to listen. Manoel asked: ‘In what order shall I confess, according to times, places, or my actions?’

‘As it comes most easily to you,’ said the priest, ‘but I should prefer the actions. I see you are a sensible man, and I approve your submission to God’s will. Happy is he who takes leave of life without fear and without reproaches, when he is about to start for the great journey into a better world.’

‘My life,’ replied Manoel, ‘has been full of labour, therefore I am looking forward to a long rest and sleep, and I do not dread the grave, for it will be a bed without mosquitoes; nor the darkness, for it hides neither thieves nor snakes. Nevermore shall I live on the enchanting islands I have seen, nor hear the lovely songs I have heard; but I shall sleep, and dream of what I have loved, and I shall forget nothing, not one of the things I have seen.’

Manoel sat up in his bed and continued: ‘There are so many experiences, and the story of my life is so long that I do not know where to begin, or how I can manage to omit nothing that is important. And how could I ever describe the beauty of all I have seen and felt? Surely, man is just to his life when he is about to die, and at this moment all my deeds and experiences seem to me of equally great importance and consequence. It was important that I left my native town, and it was important that I never returned to it, but remained in strange lands; that I was drawn on and on, and that the desire for roaming never and nowhere left me. How could I tell you all that has happened to me? I know every part of the world, all the islands and continents, and all the peoples inhabiting them. I need only shut my eyes, and my mind is filled with visions of which you will never be able to imagine the like; all the songs of this world, all the dances and kisses; all the characteristic towns, curious groves and blossoms, and all the other things of which the world is made up. I should like to celebrate all the women of different countries, praising them according to their colour, their bodies and dresses, all that differentiates them and all that they have in common. I have experienced most of the sicknesses which different climates generate, and I have often been a prisoner and have escaped; but even when I was not a captive, even though I might be resting beneath palm trees in the most lovely parts of the world, my only longing and desire was to escape and go yet farther afield, so that I flew to fresh distances.’

‘Sailor,’ said the priest, ‘I do not ask what you have been and what you have seen, but what deeds you have done, and what there was of good and bad in your roaming life.’

‘My deeds,’ said Manoel, ‘were various, according to the various countries in which I sojourned, but I am certain that I have done everything which I had occasion to do. Sometimes I was so rich that I did not know the extent of my fortune, and sometimes I was naked, and did not possess so much as a stick to drive away snakes and the wicked monkeys. At other times, it is true, I used my stick on the obstinate backs of slaves, and I would lean upon them, when all the people bowed before me in the bazaars and in the streets. But for much the greatest part of my life I myself have served others, and carried loads like a camel.’

‘All that,’ the priest said impatiently, ‘is no doubt very interesting, but now God is bidding you to confess your grosser sins, such as murder, violence, rape or theft, also immorality, debauchery, lying and cheating; also gambling and swearing, hurting the undefended; godlessness, want of faith. Confess not only your sinful actions, but also where you have sinned in words and thoughts against the law and against virtue.’

‘No doubt I have committed deeds of that description too,’ said Manoel, ‘and if it is so very important that you should know, I will tell you that I have killed both in defence and also in offence, after all the rules of the game, and with much skill. If you ask me about immorality, I could describe to you the many different women I have met. Each one was like a fresh landscape, or an undiscovered island on which you set foot in wonder and curiosity. Those are details: in themselves worth telling and strange enough, but at this moment they do not seem important to me. I am wondering much more, and pondering upon it, that though the thought of the distances I was going to traverse made me shudder because they were so great, yet I joyfully and unhesitatingly threw myself into them as into an abyss.’

The priest sighed and sald: ‘You would do better to repent of your sins, and be forgiven by God before you go to be judged.’

But Manoel answered: ‘I repent nothing that I have done. My life has been one single purpose, and what there was of good or bad beside that, I do not know. I think it was of great consequence that I should have gone in every direction of this world and sailed to every quarter, and on my way seen all the oceans and continents. Is it not of the greatest importance that I should have known so many blessed and so many unblessed places, and discovered ever fresh wonders and deeps?’

‘Fear the Last Judgement,’ cried the priest loudly and angrily.

‘It would be just and meet,’ said Manoel, ‘to apply to my life not the judgement of what is good or bad, but of how great have been the distances I have traversed. But now, alas! I am lying on my beam-ends like a ship that has foundered, and can roam no further.’

‘Go to hell, then, pig of a sailor,’ cried the priest, ‘I have never seen a man so stubborn in his last hour; a terrible curse must be upon you that you can speak thus.’

So saying he hurried away.

‘Go, priest,’ Manoel called after him, ‘I do not understand what you want of me.’

The priest had gone, and Manoel turned towards the wall to sleep. He dreamt he was walking through the streets of a town without knowing why or whither, until he was surprised to find himself standing by the water’s edge of a harbour. The water was dark, gently plashing against the flanks of black ships which seemed abandoned, with the exception of the one in the centre, from the deck of which lights were glimmering, and boats were dancing around it. Two men were standing close to him; they were whispering to each other; but Manoel tried in vain to remember who they were, nor could he catch a single word of their conversation, although they were speaking his own language. While they were talking, a powerful bell began to ring from the ship; it was clamorous and persistent. Then the two men got into a boat reluctantly, and hesitating as they went. Manoel asked: ‘Where are you going?’

One of them said distinctly, so that Manoel understood: ‘To hell.’

‘Supposing I went with you!’ cried Manoel, seized by a passionate desire, and jumped into the middle of the boat.

The boat drew near to the ship, water and darkness melted into one, and Manoel himself was drawn into the unreality and phantasmagoria.

The Brother who was sitting by his bedside had been sure for some little time that Manoel was dead: he prayed over him.

Then he went off to fetch water to wash him, and a shroud.